CENTRAL JERSEY: Cicadas have 17-year itch

The 17-year cicadas are predicted to return to the East Coast and New Jersey is one of the states scheduled for their periodic invasion

By Charley Falkenberg, Staff Writer
   They’re expected baaaaack —and soon might be coming to a wooded area near you.
   The 17-year cicadas are predicted to return to the East Coast (they’ve been spotted and heard as far north as Virginia) and New Jersey is one of the states scheduled for their periodic invasion — a phenomenon the state hasn’t seen since 1996.
   These aren’t the typical annual cicadas heard every once in a while during the summer. These are swarms of a particular batch called “Brood II” and are expected to outnumber humans 600-to-1.
   Unlike annual cicadas, these guys spend 17 years as “nymphs,” or baby magicicadas, feeding off tree roots underground. Once that 17th year rolls around, they start emerging as adults when the soil temperature hits 64 degrees.
   When they surface, they’re in the mood for some loving, which means it’s going to get very loud if they’re concentrated in a particular area. This is because once they emerge, they flock to the tree tops and start buzzing away as a means to find mates to reproduce.
   Pete Bacinski, a naturalist with New Jersey Audubon, knows from experience. Seventeen years ago, he was doing a bird survey in East Orange and had to leave early because of a splitting headache — courtesy of the cicadas.
   ”I was in a place where there were tons of them and I just ran home because I had a splitting headache from the noise,” said Mr. Bacinski. “If you’re in one of those areas where it’s everywhere, it’s going to bother you.”
   However, Central Jersey might not have worry as much as northern towns. According to local naturalists, Princeton and the surrounding area aren’t impacted that much by Brood II.
   Dr. George C. Hamilton, the chair of the Rutgers University Entomology Department, recalled Princeton being impacted most by “Brood X” cicadas, which emerge every 10 years.
   Mr. Hamilton described the Princeton Battlefield Park as being rampant with Brood X back in 2004.
   ”I saw thousands of them of them there — it was so loud, it drowned the car radio out when you drove by,” said Mr. Hamilton.
   But it appears eardrums are the only things upon which cicadas wreak havoc. They don’t bite or harm people and aside from whizzing by the occasional face, they pretty much stay to themselves the short time they’re around.
   Once they mate, they lay their eggs and then die — a process Mr. Hamilton estimates takes about two to four weeks. Those not so excited about these red-eyed creatures can rest assured they will be gone around mid-June.
   In the meantime, if an encounter does happen, Mr. Hamilton advised not to spray them or kill them, no matter how loud they are.
   ”What you kill that day means there’s going to be that many more the next day. It’s kind of a losing proposition,” he added.
   For homeowners concerned about their valuable plants and shrubs, he suggested covering them with a loose cloth before the cicadas arrive in force.
   While the beginning of summer might have some worried, it’s actually the cicadas that should be concerned — when they come out, they become an endless smorgasbord of protein for wildlife.
   Scott Barnes, the Plainsboro Preserve Bird Program director, said the last time the 17-year cicadas came out in 1996, the staff at the preserve clocked 30 different species of birds that were feasting on the bugs.
   ”Because they’re so abundant, it’s easy food for birds — it’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” said Mr. Barnes.
   Nature experts think the sheer number of them could be part of their defense mechanism to keep their species alive — they can’t die out if there are too many to eat. Mr. Hamilton thinks they also avoid predators by simply disappearing for long periods of time.
   ”They really don’t have any predators because of their life cycle — it’s hard to track in on something every 17 years,” he added. “Some things feed on them, but only because it’s opportunistic — it’s not their steady diet.”
   New Jersey Audubon naturalist Stephanie Punnett is looking forward to sharing the experience with the children in the various programs at the Scherman-Hoffman Wildlife Santuary in Bernardsville.
   ”It’s a great way to teach them this is a normal happening and that it’s not bad,” said Ms. Punnett. “It’s a good way for them to understand that something may seem scary, but it’s really not — it’s just a part of nature.”