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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton


Scientific name: Bufo americanus

What to look for: Red-brown or green-brown smallish toads, two to four and a half inches. Listen for long, fairly loud trilling sounds on warm spring evenings.

Where to look: Still, fresh water such as ponds, swamps and vernal pools.

Places to go: Battle Creek Cypress Swamp; Jug Bay Wetland Sanctuary.

In April, toads join the amphibian chorus

As I recall, it was not a dark and

stormy night. It was a rather warm, early spring night. Camping in a wooded place next to a swampy creek, I was surrounded. There were hundreds of them, possibly thousands, but they were hiding. I could hear them, but I couldn’t see them.

What I was hearing was a chorus of long trills. Each whirring note lasted up to 20 seconds, with the pitch eerily changing up or down. For hours, the whirs and trills blended together, with individual calls falling in and dropping out, some close, others farther away. It sounded like an electronic score for the movie version of a ghost story. I was hearing it in surround-sound, and it was captivating.

Toads and frogs make the most amazing sounds. I knew the sounds of spring peepers, green frogs, pickerel and bullfrogs, but I didn’t know this sound. I thought it was some kind of frog.

Back home, the resident expert on amphibians told me it was Bufo americanus, the American toad. A little research revealed that, indeed, American toads have one of the most notable mating calls of all native toads. In March and April, the males call to advertise for a mate. On the warm spring evening when I camped out, the toads were in the mood.

Warm weather results in a spasm of warty life, which emerges from the floor of the forest to feed on insects and be fed upon by snakes; to sing; to breed.

Soon after that night in the woods, down in the wet pools, female frogs laid their eggs in long gelatinous tubes. Thousands of tadpoles hatched from each tube, though most died before developing into toadlets. On warm summer evenings, thousands of small toads foraged the forest floor. Of them, a small number survived the year. Over winter, the survivors burrowed deep into dead leaves and even into the topsoil to avoid freezing.

American toads are not handsome. Their colors range from reddish-brown to earthy olive-green. Dark spots with warty bumps decorate their backs. As a defense against predators, the warts and the prominent parotoid glands — located behind the eyes — secrete fluids that are toxic if swallowed. So don’t eat the toads. But it is safe to handle them, if you must. They don’t cause warts.

Unlike their close relatives the frogs, adult toads are able to survive on dry land and therefore can make themselves at home in yards and gardens, where they earn their keep controlling harmful insects. Wise gardeners encourage toads to stay. A clay pot can be made into a toad abode by breaking off a small section of the rim and placing the pot rim down in a shady, out-of-the-way place.

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