Birds eat them. Wasps have been known to as well. And of course, humans do, too.
“Almost everyone will eat cicadas,” said Richard Karban, an entomologist at the University of California at Davis who studies periodical cicadas.
The defenseless cicadas are plentiful, and particularly vulnerable when they first emerge and are immobile while they molt their skin, offering easy eats even for predators that may not typically subsist on insects, Karban said. With plenty of grub at hand — or paw — after the cicada emergence, we may see more of some of these species than before.
Karban pointed to documented “baby booms” among birds during the years cicadas emerged, adding that species such as grackles, starlings and blackbirds consume “crazy quantities of cicadas.”
While many have “bumper years” following the 13- or 17-year cicada emergences, Karban said, it’s unpredictable which animals will see the most significant population surge.
The last time Brood X cicadas emerged in 2004, a Washington Post headline asked: “Did Cicada Explosion Lead to Boom in Rat Population?”
The answer was no, said Robert Corrigan, an urban rodent specialist.
Rats won’t turn down eating a cicada if that’s on the evening’s menu, but city rats are opportunistic eaters, Corrigan said. A pizza slice dropped on the sidewalk is a more alluring meal than a cicada, which is really just an “extra snack” compared with the mounds of garbage around, Corrigan said.
“The rats may say, ‘Holy cow, we have this protein source,’” he said, “but it doesn’t compare to what they have. Urban rats are doing well.”
Corrigan joked that rats have been pictured toting food, from pizza to bagels, so with the ubiquity of smartphones since the last emergence of Brood X, maybe a viral photo will circulate of a rat clutching a cicada.
“Who knows, maybe we’ll see cicada rat,” he said.
Cicada admirers have trekked across state lines to collectively see and hear the once-every-17-years marvel.
But snakes, including some venomous ones, have also been spotted gathering for the natural phenomenon, prompting experts to warn the public to protect themselves from what may be lurking underfoot.
Snakes are not really out more than they typically are, according to Travis Anthony, president of the Virginia Herpetological Society. But people visiting wooded areas for the cicada emergence might spot a snake basking in the sun in the forest or in tree hollows.
The abundance of protein-filled cicadas can increase snakes’ chances of survival and reproduction rates, Anthony wrote in an email.
“The periodic cicadas will be an easy snack for wildlife lucky enough to be around for their emergence,” he said.
While many snake species eat cicadas, Anthony said, copperheads, equipped with retractable fangs that deliver venom, are a particularly menacing predator.
“Why would such a well-armed predator bother to dine on cicadas?” said herpetologist Andy Gluesenkamp in a 2016 Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine article. “For the same reason we eat fast food: It’s cheap and easy.”
It’s an eye-catching sight: The copperheads slowly slither toward the cicadas, which are preoccupied with molting their skin on any treelike surface. With a flick of their bodies, the predator lunges, swallowing the cicada whole. A viral photo of a copperhead devouring an annual cicada captured this astounding scene in 2019.
For photographer Sarah Phillips, the spectacle is like one of the nature documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. Although not nearly as plentiful as the mass return of cicadas every 13 or 17 years, annual cicadas emerge during summer nights from beneath an oak tree just outside her boyfriend’s front door in eastern Kentucky every year, when copperheads are waiting, along with Phillips with her camera. She takes captivating photos and videos to share with thousands of followers on a Facebook page devoted to cicadas and copperheads.
Phillips advises people hoping to witness the pursuit in person to bring a flashlight, watch their step and wear closed-toed shoes.
A copperhead’s bite may be painful for humans, but it is not deadly. Such attacks are rare, and snakes are more likely to slither away at the sight of a human, experts say.
To capture the snakes’ pursuit of cicadas, Phillips has gotten closer to the copperheads than she would recommend others do, but she’s never felt in danger.
“The interaction between the cicadas and the copperheads has interested me because you always think, ‘Oh, copperheads, they’re so scary, they’re going to bite people,’” she said, “but they’re over here eating little bugs. I just think that’s so funny that we’re scared of them, but no, they just care about eating some bugs, really.”
Years before the broods rise from the dirt, people can already notice a stark difference in some wooded areas: There are more moles.
They also live underground, so the small mammals nosh on cicadas once they are near their emergence. The extra food source means moles’ survival and reproductive rates surge, said mole trapper and expert Tom Schmidt, a.k.a. the Mole Man. Schmidt, who has kept records on his peak trapping years for more than three decades, becomes increasingly busy during this time, trapping farther from the wooded area as moles tunnel their way into people’s yards. Although mole populations might vary in other places, they are abundant ahead of the cicada emergence in Schmidt’s territory.
“It’s kind of like you’re having a party and you have enough food for 200 people, but you have enough room for 50 people,” said Schmidt, who is based in Cincinnati. “So that part has to spill out.”
Ahead of the last Brood X emergence in 2004, Schmidt went from trapping and killing 339 moles in 1999 to 788 the year before the emergence in 2003, according to his records.
But then the party ends.
Schmidt said he’s seen a dramatic drop following emergence years. In 2005, he trapped 95 moles, less than one-eighth of what he caught the year before.
“You throw the food away and you have 200 hungry people,” Schmidt continued. “What happens to 200 hungry people? They go to Bob Evans. If there’s no Bob Evans and no place to get food, they would starve.”
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