Calls in the Night
I am elated to hear the first high-pitched, rapid trill of the male’s call in late April. I was especially thrilled when I first heard this sure sign of spring this year. It is the pronouncement that winter is over as hundreds of American toads have exited the burrows in the mud. Almost immediately they move to breeding pools, they breed from early May to mid-June. The males call to attract females. They attempt to amplex anything that swims by, often squeezing another male, the second male will call out in distress. Amplex behavior is basically latching on to the back of another toad and hugging them around the waist. The female deposits the eggs into the water and the male clinging to her fertilizes them. Females lay anywhere from 4,000 to 20,000 eggs at a time. These number are astonishing, however there is huge mortality rate so there are never too many amphibians. It isn’t long before the eggs hatch, only two to eight days, into tiny tadpoles. Metamorphose into froglets can happen rapidly in drying ponds. American toads are only near water during the mating season. The rest of the summer and early autumn they can be seen far from water. In October, they begin to burrow for the winter. They burrow just below the frost line, as the frost deepens they move further underground.
The life history of Bufo americannus seems connected with my own; my childhood is filled of memories with catching American toads. At an early age, I learned about amphibians, some at school and also at home. Mom and Dad often took us to streams and ponds. Dark, black clouds swam through the water, many tadpoles forming a large mass. I liked to try to catch a few in my hands to observe them closer. I enjoyed catching adult toads too. They weren’t easy to catch, one had to be fast and sly to do so, being sure not to injure it. Of course, the poor toads were terrified. To deter attackers, toads will often urinate on them. This trick is quite effective on humans too. Though I would release a toad after it urinated on me, it didn’t keep me from picking them up again and again. From the first I can remember, I was intrigued by these amphibious creatures. To be disgusted by them or afraid never crossed my mind. I thought they were cute and incredibly fascinating. The feel of their skin was a tactile treasure. They felt cool and dry, their backs lumpy but their belly smooth, soft and a little squishy. I still enjoy the texture of toads. Even now I like the feel of their tiny toes on my hands, it is both wonderful and indescribable. Large eyes atop their head amused me as a child, and found them inspiring to draw. I ashamedly admit I used to torture my sister with them. At the time, I didn’t realize how traumatizing that was to the poor toads, I only meant to freak my older sister out. After catching a toad, I would stick it in her face asking if it was cute. She usually screamed. Johanna even now isn’t comfortable around amphibians and reptiles finding them repulsive.
Toads come in many different colors and patterns, anywhere from dark brown to tan and I’ve seen a few that are green. American toads are probably the most common anuran in Minnesota. They are generally pretty easy to distinguish from all other toads and frogs in the state. Toads look noticeably different from frogs anyway, due to the lack of warts on frogs. The pattern and coloration of their spots and the large parotid glands behind their eyes are also distinguishing features to identify American toads.
I enjoy coming across an American toad in the greenhouses as I’m weeding. I find their presence in the greenhouse soothing. After all the rain over the weekend, the toads were so happy they were singing throughout the day. After just over three inches of rain on Tuesday, the greenhouse was filled with an extremely large chorus of toads. I was thrilled to watch the joyful toads at play in the water. Heads poking up out of the pond. Nearly translucent eyes, glowing at the top of their heads. Their bodies spread out, floating just below the surface. The loud trills quickly stop as I approached. They ducked in the water, swimming away. They seemed to be playing in the water, rejoicing in the new rain fall after it had been so dry. Their joy overflowed into song that lasted all day. Only a few times have I been lucky enough to observe the vocal sac, under their mouths, inflated, it is yet another fascinating thing about these small creatures. Each year it is fun to watch the toads, in this makeshift pond near the barn. Soon there will be tadpoles filling the water. It is fascinating to see the legs taking form when they still have tails. It is a joy to observe the extremely tiny froglets hop out of the water, they are so cute.
People often either overlook toads and therefore never see them and don’t care, or they see them all the time but for some reason I can’t understand, find them disgusting. Unfortunately, there is an age old association of toads with witches that can taint people’s view of them. Toads are also portrayed negatively in media. Some people have the notion that toads are slimy. Even after climbing out of a pond with water spilling off their back they aren’t slimy. Their warts are also a deterrent. The warts on toads aren’t like the warts in humans. Warts do not transmit from toads to humans. American toads have an important role in an ecosystem. Their main food source makes them beneficial to humans. Toads consume insects, worm and snails. They may be common but like all other amphibians they are fragile. Since their skin is permeable they are very susceptible to toxins. The presence of toads and other amphibians is an indicator of a healthy environment and should be a joy. On summer nights, I love to fall asleep to the song of the American toads outside my window.