Short Grass Prairie Cicada

by Carl Strang

I celebrated the 4th of July by making a long-anticipated trip to the Woodworth Prairie in northern Cook County. This has been identified by a research group at the University of Illinois Chicago, led by Dennis Nyberg, as a primary location for Okanagana balli, the short grass prairie cicada. They indicate the peak activity of the cicadas as mid-June to mid-July. I missed them last year, finding the UIC information a little too late. I got there at 11 a.m., the indicated start of the cicadas’ peak daytime activity period. My first impression was how small this prairie remnant is.

Woodworth Prairie is only 5 acres, and surrounded on all sides by residential and commercial properties. It is owned by UIC.

Woodworth Prairie is only 5 acres, and surrounded on all sides by residential and commercial properties. It is owned by UIC.

A continuous buzzing sound was audible, but it was high-pitched and faint. Separate rapid pulses could be discerned, so I knew I wasn’t hearing Roesel’s katydids, but the singers were difficult to locate. I walked the trails a bit, impressed by the little prairie’s botanical diversity and minimal presence of non-prairie plants, but decided to see if I could get some guidance in the prairie’s interpretive center.

Michelle Budniak was the guide on duty.

Michelle Budniak was the guide on duty.

Michelle was new to the site, and didn’t know much about the cicadas, but she was willing to lend me her young ears (if a paraphrase of Britain’s bard is acceptable in an Independence Day story). We were able to get close to a singing cicada, and within 20 feet or so I was able to hear him clearly. We were in the final stages of a stalk when there was a movement, and one of the little cicadas flew in and landed on a nearby plant.

This is a tiny cicada, about the same size as a Cassin’s 17-year cicada at an inch or an inch and a quarter long.

This is a tiny cicada, about the same size as a Cassin’s 17-year cicada at an inch or an inch and a quarter long.

What ensued was a capsule lesson in singing insect biology. The arriving cicada was a female, drawn by the male’s song. She flew even closer to us and he appeared (he had been on the far side of a compass plant leaf, which blocked our view of him).

The two cicadas traded wing-flick signals, indicating their acceptance of one another as mates.

The two cicadas traded wing-flick signals, indicating their acceptance of one another as mates.

Soon they were connected, and remained so for about 10 minutes.

Soon they were connected, and remained so for about 10 minutes.

I was able to get satisfactory photos and sound recordings of the cicadas, benefiting from Michelle’s observation that they were most active when the sun was not blocked by clouds. I felt ready to recognize their song should I encounter them elsewhere. Though the song is faint to my ears, the SongFinder renders it quite loud, and with the reduced pitch it is recognizable as a cicada song, a continuous rapid pulsing resembling that of a swamp cicada or lyric cicada.

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3 Comments

  1. Lisa Rainsong said,

    July 8, 2013 at 7:41 am

    I did not know anything about this little cicada and its soft song. Thank you for the information, and the photos are great!

  2. December 2, 2013 at 7:18 am

    […] in early July I first encountered a species I then called the short-grass prairie cicada (Okanagana balli). Its more commonly used English name […]

  3. July 11, 2014 at 5:50 am

    […] cicadas are small, early-season cicadas that I first met on July 4 of last year at Woodworth Prairie in Cook County. Soon after that I found them at West Chicago Prairie and Belmont Prairie in DuPage […]


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