Wednesday, May 9, 2007

About American Toads

I'm listening for their mating calls. The American Toad is probably the toad most often noticed here in our central area of Virginia. Forests, lawns and gardens are their preferred habitat so they set up residence in our forested backyard near the pond when they're ready to mate.

They patrol our garden and eat lots of insects, spiders, earthworms, snails, and slugs. They will eat just about anything that fits into their mouths. They lash out with their sticky tongues to grab the prey. If the prey is large, they'll use their arms to stuff it into their mouths. That's not the table manners of somebody you'd like to invite to dinner.

They are large and chubby, growing up to 4-1/2 inches long. The coloration varies within the brown, olive and reddish colored range. Both male and female toads have a spotted belly, but the male has a darker throat as shown in the photo of a male calling for a female on the edge of our small backyard pond.

This toad prefers cool woodland and edge areas with plenty of moisture and insects, but will visit meadow and garden if cover is adequate for protection. I've seen them patroling in the front of the house around the bushy areas.

During daylight hours they generally seek cover beneath porches, rocks, leaf litter, flat stones, boards, logs, wood piles, or any other cover. They primarily lead a terrestrial life but move to ponds and pools to mate and lay eggs. That's when you get to hear their long-winded song.

American Toads are most often seen and heard in the Spring when they are breeding. Toads call from mid-spring to late summer and their call is a long, high-pitched trill that lasts for as long as thirty seconds, making it easy to identify them at night when they are most active. The males find pools of water and begin to call for females. He stretches out his dewlap (the pouch at his throat) to create this unique song that many people mistake for crickets. Crickets sing in the Fall, toads sing in the Spring.

Females, who are attracted to the calls of males, reach the water and mating begins. Males will hug the larger females and the female will lay between 4,000 and 7,000 eggs, in long strings, in the water, and then leave the site in a few days.

Many people are confused between frogs and toads. Toads have warty dry skin since they prefer a drier habitat, but like all amphibians, they need to keep their skin moist so they will remain near water. Frogs have moist or slimy skin preferring a wetter environment and will remain close to their source of water at all times. The bumpy skin on toads helps to camouflage them.

Because their skin is so thin and easily damaged , it's best not to pick them up, but if you have them around as much as we do, I have to give one a hug now and then. There are a few rules if you're going to pick up toads or frogs. First make sure your hands are clean. Amphibians are the species that will first disappear in a toxic environment.

Their skin will absorb the chemicals from hand lotions or anything you may have on your hands, so make sure they are clean AND wet. Their skin is very thin and easy to damage so wet hands are very important so your enjoyment doesn't shorten its life.

By the way, people do not get warts from toads or frogs. Warts come from a human virus.

Tadpoles will hatch from the eggs in about a week. The black tadpoles will steadily grow by eating algae and plant material for over a month and will then emerge from the water as small young toads. They now have lungs to breathe out of water.

Most folks like to have a pond that looks like it's ready for a garden commercial. We keep ours pretty natural which means there's some algae in it and plenty of leaves on the bottom, not only for food but also for the frogs and tadpoles to winter over at the end of the season. It's not crystal clear and certainly not blue. That makes it very appealing to the frogs. We also don't have any fish which would eat the tadpoles but even frogs eat tadpoles, especially bullfrogs.

The main predators of toads include snakes, owls, skunks and raccoons. The toads have paratoid glands behind the eyes which produce a foul-smelling, toxic chemical that will keep some predators from attempting to eat them.

When cold weather comes, these toads will dig backwards into a burrow up to three feet under ground to hibernate. With our clay soil here in Virginia I do wonder how they do that. For now I'm listening for their song which I love to hear as I fall asleep.

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