Backyard Note #6 — Singers, Lovers, Assassins
“Voyeur!” had been my wife’s reply to my text message. And I suppose It was a fair assessment. I had been quite brazen about it, although I couldn’t get too close for fear of disturbing the couple. Well, actually, the scene was edgier than that. I was watching and photographing a menage a trois, a rather rough one at that. There were three toads mating in my backyard pond, and I was getting a some really nice pictures of it from across the yard.
We have had toads mate in our pond before this, but I had never actually witnessed it before this. The evidence was simply the appearance of little black tadpoles in our ponds without our having put them there. The other evidence of toads mating in our ponds was not something we saw. It was something we heard — the trilling of the male calling for a mate.
The singing of the American toad (Bufo americanus) isn’t particularly melodious, but it is pleasing to the ear. It isn’t a song as such, just a high-pitched, occasionally lilting, trill that lasts for five, maybe ten, seconds, pauses, then starts up again. The male sings by inflating his throat like a balloon and warbling. You can see one of the guys in my menage a trois sitting on the edge of the pond and singing with his throat inflated.
Our toads sing for a mate both in the daytime and at night, though I somehow can’t help thinking of toad song as essentially a night sound. I’m sure I’ve heard toad songs all my life, but I didn’t learn to recognize them until the last few years. Until recent years, I think I’ve always assumed that the persistent, tenacious trilling that I would hear on spring nights was being produced by an insect. The relentless, unresting perseverance of the song always seems somehow more insect-like. But truly these toads are ardent little fellows in the springtime. They sing with machine-like endurance.
The three toads that I photographed in my pond were a female, the largest of the three, and two males. As I watched, I could see that the males were not above tussling over the female. The winner was the little guy who did the best at keeping his grip on the female’s back. Clinging to the female’s back, the male fertilizes the eggs externally. Mating for toads takes place entirely outside the body. As the female extrudes the eggs, linked together in a sort of ribbon of gel, the male showers the eggs with his milt. If all goes as planned, a long string of fertilized eggs will hang form some piece of vegetation or nestle down among the rocks, a tangled ribbon with little black dots along its length. In time, a few days maybe, those black dots will begin to twitch and fidget.
In my pond, one of the males seemed to keep his grip on the female despite the efforts of the other male to cut in. So, the guy, who was left out, finally decided to climb out onto the side of the pond and trill for his own female. He set to it with a vigor, first trilling straight in the direction of the couple in the water. Then, after a few minutes, he turned his back on them and poured his vocal vigor out across the lawns and hedgerows of the neighborhood. I don’t think he found a sweetheart to respond to his songs, because, when, after a few days of steady trilling in my backyard, I looked into the ponds, I found one and only one tangled ribbon of eggs, woven among the rocks in the shallow end of one of the ponds.
Today, about a month later, the pond is alive with little, black, tailed balls, fluttering around along the
pond edge, among the lily pads, and settled in bunches on the rocks in the shallows. Later in the summer, they will have sprouted legs. Their tails will become shorter and shorter. In time, the tails will be gone altogether, and tiny, miniature toads will begin to disperse among the weeds, grasses, and flowerbeds of my yard and beyond. And they will be truly tiny, a couple of them could sit comfortably on my thumb nail, if they were so inclined. But they wouldn’t be so inclined. They love the dark, damp of a patch of tall grass and weeds.
My yard is now well-populated with toads of all sizes. I welcome them. They are little predators of a wide appetite. I most appreciate their fondness for one of nature’s yuckier pests — slugs. Slimy and voracious, slugs can be a terrible nuisance. Gardening experts have outdone themselves in the search for creative, non-toxic means of dealing with garden slugs. Some of them will kill off some of your slugs, but in the end, most gardeners eventually resort to toxic “slug” pellets. These typically work pretty well. In fact, they usually work much better than intended. Notice that I just put the term “slug” in quotes. That’s because “slug” pellets also kill off a wide array of other, sometimes beneficial, insects. I don’t use slug pellets. My little platoon of toads has proved quite effective at keeping the slugs at a very low-level.
[SIDE GLANCE: The oh-so-popular “grub” killers that Americans — obsessed with achieving the perfect lawn — spread over acres of the urban and suburban landscape, are an even worse perpetrator of collateral insect killing. Where have all the fireflies gone? Killed by the “grub” spreads you cover your lawn with. The irony there is that most species of firefly in their larval and sometimes in their adult forms are predatory, preying on the very lawn pests you want to get rid of.]
The American toad — singer, lover, garden pest assassins. You gotta love ’em!
© 2013 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.