Last Updated on July 18, 2021 by Nancie
For the past week, Brood X Cicadas have been increasing in numbers each day . . . and my bird feeders have been almost empty of birds. With so many delicious cicadas to eat, most but not all, of my local backyard birds don’t need to come to feeders.
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Cicadas Emerge Gradually From Underground
I live in central Maryland, which is in the epicenter of the 17-year Brood X Cicadas. I’ve been seeing holes here and there in my yard’s soil for weeks. At first though, there was not a cicada in sight. Then one or two. But over the past weeks, the number of cicadas I’ve seen in the yard has been increasing each day.
Brood X cicadas emerge from the ground at night when soil temperature is warm enough (about 64 degrees.) They climb up onto the nearest tree (or in my yard, it might also be the nearest milkweed plant or daylily.) During the dark hours, they break out of their husks and turn into their red-eyed above-ground adult selves. In the mornings, I find their discarded light brown husks clinging to the plants. Sometimes the cicada itself is sitting nearby, but often not.
I see more and more cicadas most days. Now if you sit outside, you can periodically see one clumsily fly across the yard. What I’m not seeing is birds at my feeders. Most of the birds have seemingly disappeared.
Birds Eating Cicadas So Feeders Are Almost Empty
For the past few weeks, mostly the only birds visiting my feeders have been Mourning Doves, House Finches and American Goldfinches. All three species are seed-eaters and so won’t be partaking of the cicada banquet. Blue Jays do still stop by for peanuts . . . because, well, peanuts! They aren’t likely to pass on the peanuts even during a cicada feast; they can probably cache the peanuts if they are too full to eat them. (I do notice that they are not eating the peanuts quite as quickly as usual though. Instead of tossing two handfuls in the feeders each day, the same amount lasts about two days.)
But the always present Northern Cardinals are no longer a presence at my feeders, nor are Downy Woodpeckers, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmouses, Carolina Wrens, etc. I do still sometimes see and hear these birds and watch the wrens bug-hunting on my front porch. But these birds have disappeared from my feeders!
I have yet to actually witness a bird eating a cicada, but I strongly suspect that is what is happening. (Scientists are looking at other possible reasons that some birds become scarce during cicada brood appearances.)
Note: If you don’t have a cicada brood around but still have empty bird feeders, check out my post on Birds Not Coming To Feeders for other possible reasons.
Cicada Volume Varies
While cicadas are well-known to be loud, the sound volume seems to vary by both specific location and weather. Areas where trees have been least disturbed for the past seventeen years may be more cicada filled. In my yard they started out fairly quiet with no loud cicada song nor as much bird song as usual. It was a little eerie. To this point, the cicada song is still mostly a background hum. The hum’s volume has increased over the past couple weeks to the point that I can hear it even in the house during the day when the windows are open (except on cold wet days). Scientists are researching whether large cicada brood noise drowns out birds who use their calls and song to communicate with each other. They are looking into the potential impact of cicadas on birds, positive or negative.
Note: On cold wet days, I do not hear cicadas. But the birds have not magically reappeared at my feeders. The cicadas are still around up in the trees for birds to eat even on these quiet days.
Our Feeders Supplement Birds’ Native Foods
Cicadas are harmless creatures, but if birds are finding a good source of food in nature, I’m happy for them. It is a reminder that what we offer at our feeders is meant to supplement a bird’s diet. It is not the whole of what they eat. My wallet will be a little happier for a few weeks too as I won’t need to fill my feeders as often. Once the cicadas are finished with their above ground cycle and disappear again, I’m sure birds will be back to my feeders in their more usual summer numbers.
Update on Cicada Activity in Feeders in My Yard
(6/6/21) We still have a cicada hum most of the time in our yard, but I’m starting to see more dead adult cicadas here and there on the ground. (At first I was just seeing the empty tan husks.) Also, over the past few days, I’ve started to see just a tiny bit of increased bird activity in my feeder area.
A couple days ago, a trio of cardinals came by for an nostalgic visit to the old feeding ground. They didn’t eat at the feeders but hung out in the area for a short time. Now I see a few cardinals in the trees around the feeders each day, although not eating at the feeders.
Yesterday I saw a Tufted Titmouse stop off twice at the feeders, once for a sunflower chip and a second time for a peanut split. This is the first time I’ve seen one at the feeder in several weeks. And a White-Breasted Nuthatch stopped off today for a similar snack of a quick sunflower chip and peanut split. Again, I haven’t seen one at the feeders since the cicadas arrived.
I’ve started to see Downy Woodpeckers at the suet feeders maybe once a day or so. Today a trio of them stopped by the feeders. At least one was a fledglings being introduced to the suet feeders by parents.
6/19/21: My yard is quiet again and birds are gradually returning to the feeders. Cicada population varies a lot by specific location, so they still may be active in other spots in the area and/or in other states, but in my yard they’ve tapered off. I’ve only seen one or two flying in the past day.
Are You Seeing Cicadas in Your Yard?
Are you seeing cicadas in your yard? Have you seen birds or squirrels or other critters eating them? Have your feeders been less busy? Please feel welcome to comment below if you like.
Learn More About Cicadas and Birds
Birds May Hold Clues to the ‘Bizarre’ Life Cycle of Brood X Cicadas (Audubon article)
We Hiked Along With Cicada Biologists So You Don’t Have To (Wired article)
During Cicada Boom, Birds Mysteriously Vanish (Discover article)
After 17 Years Underground, Brood X Cicadas Return For ‘Romance In The Treetops’ (WBUR radio recording)
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