Flagging in the Heat

by Carl Strang

On Saturday I completed my survey of 2020 periodical cicada reproduction in the Chicago suburbs. I focused on 18 suburban cities where I had observed wave chorusing, mapping out walking routes where I counted the flags that indicate where female cicadas deposited eggs in tree and shrub twigs. Altogether I walked 33.4 miles on hot afternoons, but the main physical challenge was the stiff neck I developed from constantly looking up into the trees. I will need to consult with periodical cicada specialists to be sure, but it seems to me that the numbers support a persistent, parallel splinter regional population that will continue to appear 4 years ahead of each major emergence.

Here I will share two sets of data. First, the highest numbers of flags in single trees.

Map of Chicago suburbs I surveyed for periodical cicada reproduction. Numbers indicate the highest count of flags in a single tree. Flags are withered twig ends that result from female cicadas inserting their eggs and cutting off the twig’s vascular system.

The high count of 33 was in Brookfield. I was walking residential streets, so my counts are transects rather than area surveys. The next map gives average numbers of flags per 100 meters. I used that number as the divisor because I often observed 1-2 wave choruses per block while driving earlier in the season, and 100m represents a middle-of-the-road block length.

Average counts of flags per 100m in Chicago suburb survey routes.

The highest counts of 10.5 and 9.1 are in LaGrange and Western Springs, respectively. These counts are conservative: I usually could not see all sides of a tree, canopies blocked part of the view, and to an unknown but certain degree flags had fallen to the ground and were removed by homeowners (this takes away some eggs, but there are others in the twig above the break).

Flags fallen to the ground at Madison Meadow Park, Lombard. In a residential yard these likely would have been removed before I could count them.

This fallen flag carried some eggs, leaving others still on the tree. Sugar maples were a popular choice by female periodical cicadas.

In addition to these transects in the cities, there were isolated parks and sites worth considering. At Pioneer Park Forest Preserve in Naperville, a single isolated non-wave chorus tree produced 7 flags spread between two trees. A similar case at Cook County’s Bemis Woods produced 18 flags. A park in Downers Grove had 37 flags. Other forest preserves had enough flags to suggest that their local off-year populations will continue: 22 at Lyman Woods, 13 at Greene Valley, and though I was disappointed by the size and timespan of the wave chorus at Wood Dale Grove, there were well over 30 flags there.

Tree with flags at Pioneer Park

First Flags Over Brookfield

by Carl Strang

Cicada specialist John Cooley taught me a new term: flagging. This refers to dead and broken twig ends on trees and shrubs where periodical cicadas have placed their eggs. Mama cicada slits the underside of the twig in several places and injects her eggs. This impedes water flow, and with circulation cut off the leaves turn brown. The cuts weaken the twig, and it may break partly and bend down, producing a “flag.”

Now that the periodical cicadas are done singing in many places and nearly so in others, it is time to start looking for these flags. They will provide the best measure of how this off-year emergence may continue for another generation. On Tuesday I started in Brookfield, the first place where I heard a full wave chorus of singing males.

I soon found a tree with many flags.

This tree was in the same place where I found that initial wave chorus.

The brown, drooping flags stand out against the green foliage. This prunes the tree a bit but will not cause significant harm. I saw many trees with one or two flags, but only the two in the photos had many. I expect to see more of them the next time I check.

John said that dry weather and thunderstorms enhance flag formation. A lack of water flow enhances the twig-end drying, and the buffeting winds of storms partially snap the weakened twigs. I heard no singing cicadas in Brookfield, and so this is the very beginning of this process. On the way home I swung through northern Hinsdale, another area that had abundant wave chorusing at the peak. There still were many small non-wave choruses, so it was not surprising that I saw only a couple flags during the drive-through. I am hopeful that flagging will develop over a period of weeks, allowing me the time needed to get a good assessment of periodical cicada reproductive success across the Chicago area this year.

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