The Cicada’s Night Out

Lo! on the topmost pine, a solitary cicada
Vainly attempts to clasp one last red beam of sun.
– Unknown Japanese poet

Nearly everyone has heard cicadas but most people confuse their music (some think it is noise) with the nocturnal chatter of crickets and tree frogs. But there’s an easy tip to never be mistaken again, for in most cases cicadas never sing at night. Unless perhaps they’ve had a bad day, or maybe if the moon is too full, or if artificial lighting so intensely mimics daylight.

Cicada music varies with the species but usually, it resembles a gradual crescendo of violas and violins played in shrill, frenetic unison. The sound has nothing to do with the cicada’s mouth. Like all insects, it does not have vocal chords. So how does a cicada rustle up that loud, penetrating din? The sound one hears is made not by one cicada but by thousands of them. These forest fiddlers rub together their ribbed membranes, called tymbals, which envelop hollow abdominal chambers that amplify the noise. Some species have been measured at over 100 decibels.

And it’s almost always a love song.

An obscure Greek ode, translated roughly, goes thus: “We call you happy, O Cicada, because after you have drunk a little dew in the treetops you sing like a queen.” Certainly, that Hellenic bard wasn’t referring to Freddie Mercury? For notwithstanding the poetic license to ascribe femininity to any creature or thing that makes music, cicada musicians are males serenading their mates. Females, unlike in our species, are relatively quiet.

And it’s not dew that cicadas drink but tree sap. They have mouthparts adapted for piercing and more than a few people have complained that they’ve been bitten. Odd, because cicadas have no need for blood – they’d probably die of indigestion or food poisoning if they consumed it. Neither are they unreasonably aggressive. The only plausible reason is that the hungry cicada mistook the victim for a tree. Or it could be a case of mistaken identity – they were probably stung by the Cicada Killer Wasp, which predates on cicadas.

I’ve had many close encounters with cicadas since childhood when I used to wander about groves and grope the barks of avenue trees to locate the source of the phantom noise. But they were all daytime encounters. A couple of months ago, on a visit to the Kulgi Nature Camp in Dandeli, we were ambling about after dinner in pitch darkness with only the cold white beam of our headlamps illumining the path ahead. Suddenly, one of us stepped on something and it made an angry buzzing noise, prompting the offender to spring back in shock. Curious to know what it was, we shone our lights on it and the grumpy fellow buzzed a little more.

It was a cicada, but how very unusual to discover it at night. Now, now, do cicadas have a night life? Was he exiled, like Cacophonix, from the great village banquet? Or had some visitors from Bangalore taken the infectious BPO lifestyle a little too far? Or maybe it just fell off a tree?

We had no clear idea. So we took some pictures and let the guy go. Have you any theories or explanations of the cicada’s night out? We’ll be glad and grateful for any information you can share.

Text and photo by Beej

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