One of Cecil and Emily King's favorite tunes of this decade is the song of the cicadas, that humming, reverberative melody that is filling the air across the Washington area.

"I had read that they only howled -- I think that's the right word for it -- from daybreak until dark, but that isn't true," said Emily King, whose Arlington home in Glencarlyn is surrounded by trees bearing thousands of the insects.

"I hear them off and on during the night. Sometimes they make a sort of screeching noise outside my window. It's unbelievable. It's a two-toned kind of thing. It kind of goes up and down.

"I love the noise and I think they're very pretty, but I hate their dead bodies," she said.

After 17 years underground, the five-eyed cicada -- Magicicada septendecim -- tunnels to the surface, sheds its skin and climbs the nearest foliage.

From the highest treetops the males, often in groups of hundreds or thousands, serenade potential mates.

The sound they make is produced by two membranes, stretched over the opening of the male's thorax. When the muscles attached to the membranes move rapidly, the membranes vibrate, producing a buzzing noise.

The adults die five to six weeks after mating. By then the female's eggs have hatched, and the new generation drops to the ground and burrows in, searching for a root of a tree whose sap is their nourishment.

The adults' transition from life above ground to death is marked by the noise, which sounds like bees trapped in a jar with a microphone or, close up, like the grinding of ball bearings.

"I thought it was a bunch of machinery," said Mariam Bedein, who arrived from Philadelphia at the Audubon Naturalist Society headquarters in Chevy Chase yesterday afternoon to attend a wedding, and had her first encounter with the bugs.

"I said to my husband, 'Oh, I think it's a truck.' "

It was "a shock to the system," she said.

"It reminds me of an old science fiction movie I saw long ago," said Robert Tignor as he walked his English setter in Rock Creek Park in the District. "It's the noise you'd hear just before" the giant insect came on the screen.

Mort Davis, who was at Ossian Hall Park in Annandale yesterday for a baseball game, said he woke up Saturday morning after spending the week out of town and thought that someone's air conditioner was on the blink.

"I've gotten a lot smarter since yesterday," he said.

John Galvin, whose driveway in Kensington is covered with honey-colored carcasses, said the noise was "like a fire siren going off constantly."

The cicadas have endeared themselves to many Washington area residents who said they are more excited about a rare event than they are disturbed by the eerie noise.

Cecil King picks them up from the street so they do not get run over by cars, said his wife.

"We kind of enjoy it because it's a once-in-17-years thing, and they're harmless. Both of us have a soft spot in our hearts for them," said Cecil King.

"It picks up a rhythm," he said. "The ones that are singing are the males. Some of them shriek. That's how they attract the girls."

Barbara Nebhut, a trail guide at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center in the District, said collecting the cicadas was a hobby for some of the young riders at first.

"We spend a lot of time moving the cicadas so the horses don't step on them," she said. The buzz is so loud in the park that when an instructor made a recording of her outdoor lesson, only the cicadas were audible, said Nebhut. She loves their song and giggles at the motive behind it. "All day, they do it all day. There's so many of them you'd think they'd find someone by now."