I sit in gathering shadows
listening for the nighthawk’s peet,
the owl softly hooting.
Peering into the dense cottonwood canopy
I await the symphony…
How do they know
just when to begin
in perfect synchrony?
Punctual to the minute,
the swell is deafening
This music of the spheres
saturates my body
with song as I breathe
into the wonder of
Nature on the wing.
Postscript and Natural History
Every night I sit on the porch at dusk listening to night sounds. At precisely 8:30PM the symphony begins as the arching boughs of the cottonwoods come alive with song. When it’s really hot the cicadas are so loud that when I stand underneath the cottonwoods I am transported to another realm.
One night they surprised me. A few drops of rain fell and instantly the choral overture began. It was 8:15 PM and this uncharacteristic early beginning seemed to have everything to do with the rain which only fell for a few minutes although the insects sang on… perhaps the cicadas too are singing to the Cloud People, praying for rain.
I listened to many recordings before identifying the cicadas that are singing from these cottonwoods! Mine are “cactus dodgers” that are known for their affinity for cacti during courtship because they can dodge deadly spines during frenzied mating! They are primarily black, gray, white, and beige colored; well camouflaged for the desert.
Cicadas in general are an order of insects distinguished by piercing and straw-like sucking mouthparts. Worldwide, cicadas comprise about 2000 species, which occur primarily in temperate and warmer regions.
Like all insects, the usually dark to brownish to greenish cicada has three body parts—the head, the thorax and an abdomen. It has six jointed legs, with the front pair adapted for digging—a reflection of its underground burrowing life when a nymph. A strong flyer, it has two sets of transparent and clearly veined wings, perhaps its most distinctive feature. At rest, it holds its wings like a peaked roof over its abdomen. It has bulging compound eyes, three glistening simple eyes and short bristly antenna.
The male cicada has on its abdomen two chambers covered with membranes – “tymbals” – that it vibrates, when at rest, to produce its “song.” It can make various sounds, including, for instance, an insistent call for a mate, an excited call to flight, or a hoped-for bluff of predators. Both the male and female cicadas have auditory organs, which connect through a short tendon to membranes that receive sound. The male produces a call distinctive to his species. Ever faithful, the female responds only to the call of a male of her species.
The cicada often makes its home in the plant communities along river bottoms and drainages but can be found in many different desert ecosystems as well.
The cicada falls into one of two major groups, one called “dog day,” the other called “periodical.” The dog-day cicadas, which usually appear during the hottest days of summer, hence the name, include all of the several dozen species of the Southwest. They have a life cycle of two to five years. The periodical cicadas, which include several species, all east of the Great Plains, have a life cycle of 13 or 17 years.
Once one of the Southwestern female dog-day cicadas answers the call of a male cicadas and the two mate, she seeks out an inviting, tender twig or stem on a tree or a bush. She uses the jagged tip at the end of her abdomen to gouge into a twig. She lays eggs, each shaped like a grain of rice, into the wound eventually laying several hundred eggs.
Once a cicada nymph hatches, it drops to the ground, immediately burrowing into the soil, using its specially adapted front legs for the excavation. It seeks out a root and uses its specially adapted mouthparts to penetrate through the epidermis and suck out the sap. The cicada spends much of its time in its underground chambers. Once grown, it tunnels upward, to near the surface, where it constructs a “waiting chamber.” Upon receiving some mysterious signal, perhaps a temperature threshold, our nymph, along with its multiple kindred nymphs, emerges in a synchronized debut, one of the great pageants of the insect world. It climbs up nearby vegetation, molts for the final time, emerging from its old nymphal skin as a fully winged adult, beginning the final celebration of its life.
The cicadas struggle for survival through their final days because they are nontoxic and relatively easily caught, especially during the final molt, and must deal with a crowd of potential predators, including birds such as boat-tail grackles, various woodpeckers, robins, red-winged blackbirds and even ducks; mammals such as squirrels and smaller animals; reptiles such as snakes and turtles; spiders such as the golden silk spider; and other insects such as its especially fearsome arch enemy, the cicada killer wasp.
Of course, the cicada does have certain defenses. Once it has molted, it can fly swiftly to escape some potential predators. The raucous male alarm call may startle some predators, especially birds. It may occur in such numbers that it overwhelms the collective appetite of predators.
In perhaps its most novel defense, the desert cicada has developed an extraordinary ability to remain active throughout mid-day, when most would-be predators have to seek shelter from the desert heat. Notably, the cicada, unlike any other known insect, can sweat, which helps it dissipate heat. When threatened with overheating, desert cicadas extract water from their blood and transport it through large ducts to the surface of the thorax, where it evaporates. The cooling that results permits a few desert cicada species to be active when temperatures are so high that their enemies are incapacitated by the heat. No other insects have been shown to have the ducts required for sweating.
While the cicada may cause minor damage to the plants on which it feeds during its life cycle, it contributes in important ways to the environment. Studies of the cicada in Colorado River riparian communities revealed the ecological importance of this species. Feeding by the nymphs influences the vegetative structure of mixed stands of cottonwood and willow that occur in certain habitats. Excess water removed from the host’s water conducting tissues (the xylem) during feeding is eliminated as waste and improves moisture conditions in the upper layer of the soil. Xylem fluids are low in nutrients and the nymphs must consume large amounts of it to accommodate their energy needs. Most of the water is quickly excreted and becomes available to shallow rooted plants. Additionally, cicadas comprise an important prey species for birds and mammals, and the burrowing activity of nymphs facilitates water movement within the soil.”
The cicada has entered the realm of folklore across much of the world, possibly because its periodic emergence from darkness into light and song has been equated with rebirth and good fortune.
In one myth Cacama was the lord of the Aztec kingdom of Tezcuco who met his end at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. Cacama lives on in these winged desert treasures.
A Greek poet once wrote, “We call you happy, O Cicada, because after you have drunk a little dew in the treetops you sing like a queen.”
An Italian myth held that “one day there was born on the earth a beautiful, good and very talented woman whose singing was so wonderful it even enchanted the gods. When she died the world seemed so forlorn without the sweet sound of her singing that the gods allowed her to return to life every summer as the cicadas so that her singing could lift up the hearts of man and beast once again.”
In our desert Southwest Zuni mythology, the cicada outwitted the traditional trickster, the coyote. The insect produced heat in Hopi mythology, heralding the arrival of summer, and it is “the patron of Hopi Flute societies in charge of both music and healing,” according to Stephen W. Hill, Kokopelli Ceremonies. The cicada played a key role as a scout and a conqueror in Navajo creation myths. It brought renewal and healing to other tribes.
Across the Southwest, from prehistory into historic times, the cicada became identified with the hump-backed flute player, or Kokopelli, a charismatic and iconic figure portrayed in rock art and ceramic imagery.
Kokopelli risked his life to lead the Ant People from mythological inner worlds to the present world, where they became The First People, after agreeing to follow the teaching of the Great Spirit.
“Kokopelli’s transparent wings have now unfolded and dried, and he is able to take to the sky. Kokopelli’s reward is flight. His continued gift to us is his reminder to be grateful that we no longer live in darkness.