During Cicada Boom, Birds Mysteriously Vanish

By Guest Blogger | June 18, 2013 10:05 am

By Madeline Bodin


With thousands of newly-hatched 17-year cicadas blanketing the Eastern U.S., residents would be forgiven for not noticing a less conspicuous absence: birds.

Bird surveys have repeatedly shown a mysterious trend of a population downtick in areas of cicada emergence. It’s the exact opposite of what might be expected—crows, blue jays and cardinals are among the species affected, and they feed on insects. And it’s fascinated ornithologist Walter Koenig for years.

“The birds are just not coming in there to eat them,” says Koenig, a senior scientist at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. “Why aren’t the birds taking advantage of the cicadas? The fact that there may not be birds around seems like a good explanation.” Now, this spring is the first time he’s been able to measure his theories against a real-life emergence.

The Cicada Explosion

The emergence of millions of cicadas at the exact same time in 13- and 17-year cycles across the East Coast and Midwest is one of the natural wonders of the world—although many people consider the sudden presence of millions of huge, red-eyed insects a horror rather than a wonder. Brood II cicadas are now buzzing and laying eggs throughout their range, from North Carolina to Connecticut.

Andrew Liebhold, a forest pest expert with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Morgantown, West Virginia, says that the main reason cicadas all come out at once is as an evolutionary adaptation to avoid being eaten by birds. “You will probably never notice 99.99 percent of all insect species because they never exhibit outbreaks,” he says. “That’s because birds keep insect populations in check.”

“The amazing thing about periodical cicadas is they have figured out a way around that,” says Liebhold. So many cicadas suddenly appear on the landscape, that predators, including birds, can fill their bellies and barely make a dent in the population.

Where Are the Birds?

It was a surprise, then, when bird watchers in recent decades reported seeing fewer birds, not more, in areas where cicadas had emerged.

Could it be that the din of the cicadas’ mating buzz drowning out the birdsong, so that the bird watchers only thought there were fewer birds? Cicadas aren’t toxic for birds to eat, but could it be something else about the cicadas was driving the birds away? Or is there another explanation? Koenig and Liebhold teamed up to find out.

They began by looking in the data from the Breeding Bird Survey, a yearly census of bird populations collected by the U.S. Geological Survey since 1966. During a Breeding Bird Survey, volunteer scientists and expert bird watchers across the country drive their assigned routes during breeding season, stopping at pre-determined locations to look and listen for birds.

They key to Koenig and Liebhold’s research was that in the Brood X emergence years of 1987 and 2004, Breeding Bird Survey volunteers in the brood’s range were asked to gather information about cicadas as well as about birds. At each stop along their routes they were asked to note whether they could hear cicadas calling or not.

“That was fabulous,” says Koenig, who is an expert at crunching Breeding Bird Survey data. “It allowed us to test those hypotheses.”

Koenig reasoned that if the cicadas were driving the birds away, bird numbers would be lower in areas where cicadas were heard and higher in nearby areas where cicadas couldn’t be heard. If the cicadas were drowning out the birds’ songs, then the number of birds would be lower in areas where cicadas could be heard, but remain the same in nearby areas.

If, however, there were actually fewer birds in the area, there would be fewer birds both in areas where cicadas could be heard and in the nearby areas without cicadas. And that’s what the data showed. They also showed the number of birds bouncing back the very next year.

The plot thickened when Koenig looked at the Christmas Bird Count, another annual bird survey. These data showed fewer crows, blue jays and other insect-eating birds in areas of cicada emergence, six months before the emergence happened. The normal bird population had dipped, as if anticipating the insect surge. “There are no cicadas around; nobody is thinking of cicadas,” says Koenig. “And there was already a decline. That’s what made me think that maybe I’m not making this up after all.”

After proving that there are actually fewer birds in areas with a cicada emergence, the team’s next question was, “Why?” It’s a question they’re still trying to answer today.

An Open Question

Scientists know that bird populations boom about two years after a cicada emergence, and that they decline about two years after that. Does the bounty of food during an emergence year set off a chain of bird population booms and busts that lasts until the next emergence? Is the ecosystem impoverished for 13 or 17 years after a bounty of cicadas? Or do the cicadas, sucking juice from tree roots underground, do something to the trees a year or two before they emerge to reduce the number of seeds the trees produce, therefore lowering the bird population?

Koenig thinks it’s going to take more than Breeding Bird Survey data to find out. “One of the enduring mysteries of evolutionary biology is how we have gotten these 13 and 17 year cycles,” he says.

Koenig suspects that cicada and bird populations mutually influence each other, but he hasn’t figured out an experiment that will tease out all the dynamics of the relationship yet. As a self-proclaimed “data guy”—he experienced his first cicada emergence as an adult this month—Koenig hopes that a fieldwork-oriented grad student will take on the task of tracking individual birds through an emergence to solve the mystery. “I bet there is something really cool going on that we just don’t know about yet.”

Madeline Bodin writes about science and the environment for national magazines and the occasional newspaper from her home base in Vermont.


Image by Mark F. Levisay via Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: birds, cicadas, insects
  • Thaddeus Walsh

    Counter Hypothesis Suggestion – Birds become less visible to observers during a glut of available food (cicadas).

    Assumption 1. Birds are safest and most likely to survive when in their nests.

    Assumption 2. When cicadas are awake, there are more food sources closer to birds nests.

    Assumption 3. Bird sightings are observations of above-minimum-risk behaviors taken by birds to suffice biological needs.

    I’d argue then that if there is an active cicada brood, there will be more food closer to birds’ nests. Birds will leave their nests for less time and less frequently. This will yield a decrease in bird sightings, but not a true decrease in the population of birds.


    • Michael Milburn

      If I understand correctly the article discusses how they test for this (so many cicadas watchers don’t notice the birds or hear birds) but then they found that bird populations drop even before the cicadas show up indicating something more is going on besides observation bias.

      • Isabel Herron

        just as Sheila said,
        I didn’t know that any one can make $5892 in four weeks on the computer. did
        you look at this site w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

    • Susan Peterson

      Birds don’t live in nests. They raise their young in nests. After the young fly off, the nests are abandoned.

  • chatpaltam o

    we may never understand, but thats the fun of it all

  • genkaiharetsu

    it can’t be the birds’ disappearance causing the cicada boom?

    • Gwen Elaine Dallas

      Cicadas live underground for 13 or 17 years. The supply of cicadas tends to be irregular…

  • Greenisgood

    I hope they figure out why my pet TickleMe Plant closes its leaves when Tickled that would be cool

    • Gloria Jean Dokken

      It’s obvious. The plants are ticklish.

  • hiphen tru

    Maybe their stomach was full of them and they switched to potatoes

  • Scott Allen Deere

    just because you dont see the birds doesnt mean they arent there, its perfectly logical to assume that cicadas intentionally over produce each generation, this is bc the numbers are knocked down by predators such as bird and wasps and such. once the predators have had their fill they move on and this allows both cicadas and birds the opportunity to mate peacefully and seperately. there a far more cicadas than the birds could consume, hunting becomes gathering and paradigm flips. why would you want to hang out at the grocery store when you got a house across town?

  • Maiya Block

    Is it possible that the birds are leaving because of the sound that the cicadas make? Their loud calls might drown out the birds’ songs and so impede their communication and also be detrimental to their ability to hear possible predators.

  • Mr. Works and Days

    Based on strictly observational data in the surrounding yards, the cardinal pairs and catbirds are still around, and feasting regularly on the cicadas. The male cardinal appears at times to make a full, tree-to-tree sweep of the neighborhood, hopping from branch to branch within his own territory.

  • Estim8z

    Counter Hypothesis Continued- Total air-born and particulate dispurtoin of Fukushima Radio nucliides are introducing levels of radioactive ionizing radiation to the cell division process that are greater than the biological threshold for successful reproduction.

  • Patrick Cardiff

    I think the hypothesis is OK, but the data is wrong. There are more test variables here that aren’t being considered. Primarily, (geog limited) area. But I’m no wildlife biologist. You would have to test at least 40 locations to get a reasonable statistical distribution for this effect. I think that’s the problem. It may be so in VT, but we’re inundated by cicadae in N.VA right now, and my robin friends are out my back yard in abundance (doing that weird bounce-flying sexual reproduction behavior). Jays have not abated. Mourning dove nesting on porch, etc.
    But I am making the same error by suggesting that my experience can be generalized when it is N=1 (!) Neither am I assuming that my alternate experience discounts Madeline’s basic null.
    I’m just saying let’s get more data before we infer.

  • jasonofcompsci

    13 and 17 are two special kinds of primes. They are one more than a multiple of four. That’s interesting in math for some different reasons (factoring into complex numbers) but they could be taking advantage of the periodicity of bird populations.

    The two closest beside those are 5 and 29. Those may be outside of the acceptable range for development. It would be interesting to breed a cicada that has a five year cycle and unleash it into the wild and see if it takes off.

    But I like the counter hypothesis suggestion that the birds are not out. Showing that bird observations are reduced both before and after is not sufficient. They need to be reduced proportionally and I don’t think you have the data resolution for that. If there is a 10% reduction in bird populations before the the boom and a 70% reduction of observations post boom you are talking about two different phenominon. It’s not enough to show that it’s just less.

  • Doreen Richmond

    Came looking for a reason Birds had dissapeared > googled the cicada and birds and this site appeared. The Hunter Valley in Australia is the area I am speaking about I have seen no natives parrots or pigeons and some other pet birds.. They would come to feed at our bird feeder every day and now they are all gone. It has been 1 month now and hardly sighted any birds except a few finches. We are most distresses by their dissapeance. It seems its not just in England this occurance has been noticed.


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