American toads, backyard amphibians

It was just over a week ago — the last day of March, when the toads tuned up for a magnificent evening performance in our garden pond. Earlier in the day, I heard the sound of a single toad coming from the pond. The toad was hidden in the new growth of grassy vegetation at the edge of the stone wall that contains the pool.

I said to Splinter that I hoped some other toads would soon come along so the one that was there alone wouldn't get discouraged and move on to a more populated place. The afternoon call of that lonely toad must have sent out a special message, a shout-out, something like "calling all toads!"


Around 9 that same night, Splinter looked out the back door and told me, with surprise that it was raining. Really? "Well, no I guess it's not raining. But what is jumping all over the surface of the pond?"

The garden light that turns itself on at dusk wasn't bright enough to distinguish details but the shadows were sure bouncing around on the water.

You guessed it — a gazillion toads. American toads. Not really a gazillion, but at least between 12 and 20. We didn't need to open a door or window to hear the love songs that the males trilled, almost in harmony, across our little pond. Toad tunes don't have the diversity in tone or melody that the Dawn Chorus proudly performs each morning at this time of year. Their song is soft and distinct and sounds quite loud when the whole troupe is trilling. Once you recognize it, there is no missing it.

I found the sounds and movements irresistible and hurried out back with my camera phone. The daytime temperatures had been pretty mild, and I was still wearing my flip-flops as I walked across the patio to the side of the pond. What a sight to behold. It seemed that there were toads everywhere moving about in shadows. Some were swimming; others clinging to the rocks that border the pond and a few pairs clinging to each other (smaller males on top of the chunky females). Several of the vocalists were visible through the semi-darkness, and I could see their throat sacs fill with air, inflated like gum ball bubbles, as they trilled across the pond.

Something chilly tracked across the top of my foot. A quick flash from my camera revealed a toad. No doubt it had been lured by the commotion of the cold-blooded critters in the pond.

Toads have come out of hibernation. It's time to breed, and their mating season has begun. Although toads spend most of their lives on land (as opposed to frogs who thrive in and around the water), when they wake up from their long winter's nap, they head instinctively to water to breed. Like frogs, toads breed in water, hatch from eggs, and live their early lives in the water as tadpoles. The female toad can lay as many as 8,000 eggs per mating, but only a small percentage will develop into adults.

When not breeding, toads live on the land. They have dry, warty skin and short legs for hopping. The American toad is a chubby creature that varies in size from two to four and a half inches from nose to rump. Male and female can be distinguished by size and by color.

The female toad is generally larger than the male. She has a light-colored throat that contrasts with the darker throat of the male. Although both sexes are mostly dull brown or grayish in color, the female may appear brighter and tinged with dark red or orange. Spiny warts on the upper surfaces of its hind legs are used for digging in soft dirt.

The toad is a famously skilled bug zapper. Its tongue is two to three inches long and rolls up inside its skull. It whips its tongue out so fast to catch its prey that it almost seems invisible. I tried feeding a toad on our patio one summer evening by putting beetles in front of it. Sure enough, it started snapping them up — so fast I'm not sure I ever really got a glimpse of the tongue!

Some folks fear that one can get warts from touching a toad. Fortunately, this is not possible. However, toads do have a personalized system of self-defense to help them ward off predators. When stressed, they secrete a toxic fluid from their skin glands. The fluid is not poisonous, but it can cause temporary irritation to one's eyes and mouth. So wash your hands after handling a toad.

Keep an eye out during the next several weeks. Eventually the tadpoles that hatch from the eggs will morph into baby-size toads. They will leave the water and find their way to a new habitat –possibly in your backyard.