Cicadas and Empty Bird Feeders

Last Updated on June 19, 2021 by Nancie

Brood X Cicada
Brood X Cicada

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.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Brood X Cicada, It's Husk and a Spider
Brood X Cicada, Its Husk, and a Spider

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.

Empty Cicada Husks
Empty Cicada Husks

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.

Empty Bird Feeders During Cicada Time
Empty Bird Feeders During Cicada Time

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.

Cicada and Its Husk
Cicada and Its Husk

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.

Good wishes,

Nancie

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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30 thoughts on “Cicadas and Empty Bird Feeders

  1. No sign of cicadas yet here in Southern Connecticut. Lots of birds around eating voraciously at my 2 feeders and on the ground- mockingbirds, blue jays, northern cardinals, redwing blackbirds, grackles and assorted sparrows. No woodpeckers recently.
    Nancie, how did you get that big baffle on the double shepherds hook? Is the pole made without “feet?”

    1. Hi Tim,

      Actually it is the other way around. The shepherds hook is one of Erva’s premium shepherd staffs. It has an H-type base that goes into the ground. The curved arms are separate pieces that come off the top though. This lets you arrange the direction you want the hooks to face. It also lets you drop a baffle down over the pole from the top. You put the pole on the ground, then put on the baffle and then put the arms on the top. This post on my blog explains it a little better with some pictures: https://birdseedandbinoculars.com/wordpress/squirrels-poles-and-baffles/

      Nancie

  2. Here in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, we’ve noticed the sudden disappearance of birds this week. The cicadas are increasing here but not at peak yet.
    I wonder if all the money we’ll save on bird food in June will be needed to support the birds after the sudden loss of cicadas in July. There will be many successful nests this spring.

    1. Hi Susan,

      True. It will be interesting to see if the bird population jumps. Squirrels might be happier too for that matter.

      Nancie

  3. I’ve been seeing the cicadas on the milkweed also and the birds are largely gone from the feeders.

    1. Hi Tim,

      I do wonder if they simply climb the closest vertical surface or if in their nymph state, they simply can’t get very far so make do with milkweed or whatever is there. Some plants in my yard are covered with a bunch of cicadas and others don’t seem to have any.

      Nancie

  4. I’m in the southeastern part of Montgomery County and I’m seeing the same situation with feeders being ignored by most of the birds that used to come to them. Mourning Doves and House Finches are the only ones that have stuck around during this Cicada eruption, though an occasional Catbird, Robin, or Grackle comes to my bird baths. However, my dog (a dachshund) and my box turtles are pigging out on the Cicadas, as they are all over the place in my backyard. I actually feel sorry for the ones that get eaten as it seems an unfair ending to their long 17-year-long wait to emerge from their underground abodes. Their roaring is very loud now, even in the trees around my property. It’s so funny to see them clumsily flying about, as their bodies seem too heavy for them to get very far. I sometimes help them get to a tree so they can more easily climb it to do their calling. What an event this is! I’ll miss them when their gone.

    1. Hi Diana,

      LOL. Too funny! They really are interesting little things. In the morning they just seem to sit still, I assume resting from their molting and coming to terms with their above-ground existence. It must be a shock after 17 years. My husband and I were digging invasive wisteria out of a corner of our yard yesterday morning and I had to pick up a few to move them out of the way of our shovels. So easy to pick up. Usually such a huge number of insects everywhere would freak me out a bit, but these seem so harmless.

      Nancie

  5. As coincidence would have it, as I read your post a sparrow perched on one of our bird feeder poles with a cicada in its beak. (5/23 afternoon) The noise from the cicadas in our heavily wooded neighborhood is becoming quite loud.
    Our feeders have also been strangely quiet. The finch activity at the thistle feeder is down considerably. It looks like I’ll be saving some money on meal worms as well.
    Another odd thing – there are two male hummingbirds that visit their feeder but haven’t seen a single female yet this season. Thoughts?
    Cheers,
    Alyson

    1. Hi Alyson,
      Oh wow! I’m still waiting to see a bird with a cicada. I do find that right now if I want to see birds in my yard, I have to move a bit farther from the house, as there are much fewer birds to be seen from my windows! I have gotten too spoiled I see.

      Not sure about your hummingbirds. I usually only get two or three in my yard each year but this year, I have yet to see a single one. Sigh. I think I need to go back to the nursery and invest in more flowers . . .

      Nancie

  6. I’m in the middle of the woods in the Ellijay, Georgia. The cicadas have been very loud for over a week. I just mentioned to my sister a few days ago that my birds aren’t coming to the feeders at all and my hummingbirds visits have greatly reduced. I see them, but not at the feeders. Fewer squirrels as well.

    1. Hi Sandra,

      I do wonder how the number of trees in a specific area fits with the number of cicadas and their sound. Or maybe it is just the amount of ground that has been undisturbed for 17 years. (I’m assuming your woods might be less disturbed than a newer suburb for example.) My husband and I walked around a small local lake yesterday and noticed the sound of the cicadas ebbed and flowed. Not sure if the cicada party was pausing and re-starting in general or if some areas simply had more cicadas in earshot. It was interesting.

      Nancie

  7. I love the cicadas even if they have magically made all the birds disappear for awhile. Here, in the southern part of Springfield, VA, we have had no birds at the feeders in the last several days except for the Goldfinches at their separate feeder, and the Mourning Doves, picking at the seed on the ground. Our resident chipmunk and raccoons have all they want to eat, however, with no competition from those pesky birds. Lol!

  8. I understand why catbird and titmouse aren’t eating the mealworms but I can’t figure out why activity at the thistle feeder has decreased so much. My bird book says thistle eaters like goldfinch don’t eat insects. Is that correct?

    1. Hi Alyson,
      Yes. Goldfinches are seed eaters and so the cicadas should not be the cause of your missing goldfinches. I typically get large flocks of American Goldfinches in my yard all year round, but it is not unusual for them to disappear for a few weeks at a time. Sometimes I think it is because they’ve just had enough of the local Cooper’s Hawk(s) and decide to move on for awhile. Other times, they may have found another source of food in nature or at someone else’s feeder. But one possibility that you might not expect is that American Goldfinches are also short-distance migrants. So it is possible that when goldfinches disappear, the group is on the move for that reason. You might find this article interesting: https://gilligalloubird.com/blogs/news/where-do-all-the-american-goldfinch-go/
      Good wishes,
      Nancie

      1. Thank you! That was a really helpful reply. I love the goldfinch calls and song and miss it when it’s gone.
        And I miss the hummingbirds. Guess I will have to shell out for a few baskets of flowers.
        Thanks again for the reply.

        1. Hi Alyson,
          Sure thing. Happy to share.

          In my yard, the hummingbirds love the tube-shaped flowers best, especially purple salvia (but mine isn’t in bloom yet.)
          Nancie

  9. I live in the western NC mountains. No birds at my feeders for weeks.. I hear the “hum” of the cicadas daily- fir the last month, agreed not in the rain.. I also have not seen any humming birds this year … Has anyone else been missing humming birds?

    1. Hi Shaun,
      I haven’t had a single hummingbird visit my feeder this year. Typically I see two or three.
      Nancie

  10. I really enjoyed your article! I post bird pictures on Twitter and fortunately for me I had decided to take a break anyway. I have not seen any birds at my feeders other than the ones you mentioned! They seemed to have disappeared at the same time the cicadas became very noisy. I live in eastern Pennsylvania. Thanks for sharing this information!

    @Mardays1

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      I think it’s going to be really interesting when the cicadas are finished with their party. Will they peter out gradually and the birds come back to feeders gradually or will there be an abrupt change when all of a sudden, birds return to feeders? Very cool.
      Nancie

      1. Hi Nancie!

        Just wanted to give you an update – it is now two weeks after I first commented and what you described is exactly what happened….the cicadas are finished with their party! It was very gradual….their noise got a bit quieter every day, I saw fewer and fewer of them (yesterday saw just one and felt rather sorry for it), AND the birds are slowly making an appearance at my deck feeders. I saw one male and female cardinal, so that was a nice surprise. Three squirrels are daily visitors, but they are just going after the peanuts I put out to attract the bluejays that I haven’t seen for a month now. I must say it’s too quiet here, as I got used to the 24/7 cicada noise!

        1. Hi Marilyn,
          Same thing here in my yard here in Central Maryland. It gradually got quieter and quieter as fewer and fewer cicadas seemed to be around. Summer is always a very slow time at bird feeders typically but it is nice to have some of the regulars return!
          Nancie

  11. Glad I found this article! I had a hunch the birds vanished from the feeder because they now have a more delectable food source. Here in Glen Echo, Montgomery County, now going on 3 weeks. Just saw a goldfinch today for a hot second at the feeder. The squirrels and fox don’t seem plentiful either.

    1. Hi Galen,
      It seems like (almost) everything out there eats cicadas. We ran an errand in Columbia yesterday and the cicadas were absolutely insane there yesterday. I’ve read that we are at the peak of their party. Hopefully they will calm down soon and the birds will be back.
      Nancie

  12. Hello!

    The cicadas here in Morgan County, Indiana are a bit insane. The constant noise is deafening to our family (even with the doors and windows closed). We live in the middle of nowhere and the woods haven’t been touched in over 20 years. They are starting to fly around our yard now, but the feeders are definitely not filling with birds. Some little house finches come and eat all the time. We’d not seen hide nor hair of Cardinals, Blue Jays, Wrens, Tufted Titmouse, or Woodpeckers until yesterday. We saw a pair of Cardinals, a single Jay and titmouse, but no woodpeckers or wrens yet. The hummingbirds are still around, but I’ve seen one of the cicadas almost take one out with its crazy flight.

    As for the animals eating these guys, my chickens LOVE eating them. Literally every part of them, their molt, them as a white wiggly nasty thing, as well as their flying adult selves. A few other woodland creatures that I know are eating them are the opossum, the raccoon, the coydogs and coyotes when one buzzes by their faces, the dogs eat them like chicken nuggets (so gross to see it happen and the dogs wanting kisses after). Ohhh, and snakes, some of the smaller snakes are snacking on these guys!

    In general though, we have thousands on our property, the noise has only gotten louder. They’ve been around for about 2 weeks now so we have another 4 or so weeks to go. It should be interesting. We have holes all over the woods and the yard from where they’ve clawed their little way up the ground.

    1. Hi Chelle,
      LOL! It seems like almost every critter is eating them.

      The cicada noise in my yard is still mostly a background hum which varies, sometimes louder and sometimes quieter. We’re in a suburban neighborhood though and although it has a lot of mature trees, I’m sure it doesn’t compare to where you are.

      Well, at least they are interesting and we know that they will be leaving before too long, which I think makes even the noise a little easier to take.

      Nancie

  13. Thanks for the article! I live in Northern Delaware, actually west Newark one mile from both the Maryland and Pennsylvania borders and the cicadas’ hum has been deafening for three weeks or more now. They are wobbly flyers and fly right into you as they are all over my yard. I live next to a state park so there is much forestation for them. I do miss my birds at the feeders every day, especially my cardinals, bluebirds and woodpeckers. The doves have had the feeders to themselves. Even my squirrel population is down. I see an occasional cardinal fly by but not stopping
    as I do have a couple of nests in nearby bushes, but that’s it. The blue jays have even given up on my peanut offerings. I know scientists are still trying to find out exactly the nature of the disappearance of my flying friends, but this does seem like an appropriate explanation.

    1. Hi Joan,
      Ours have been going for weeks now too, but I’m noticing some changes. I’m seeing much fewer new brown husks and more dead adult cicadas. Also, a pair of cardinals has returned to our feeders! I’ve been imagining fat birds eating cicadas in the morning and then sitting around digesting them all day in a haze like people do after Thanksgiving dinner. But maybe this pair is getting tired of the daily cicada feast . . .
      Nancie

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