Critter Chronicles: Eastern American Toad

The hidden hoppers among us, and their remarkable secret lives. 

Let’s talk about toads. In particular, our hometown species, “Bufo Americanus” – the Eastern American toad. These bumpy brown blobs inhabit our yards, gardens, forests, and fields where they blend discreetly into the scenery. We know them best by sound. Their distinctive calls fill the air on warm, wet evenings from early spring through summer. Only the males vocalize: it’s a high trill 6 to 30 seconds long (similar to an old-school telephone ring). And to females, it’s an irresistible siren song. 🖤🎶💀

Every spring, thousands of sex-crazed toads emerge from underground hibernation only to meet their end on local roads they must cross to their ancestral love swamp. The death toll is so disturbing that neighborhood groups like “Toad Detour” in Roxborough organize volunteers with flashlights, buckets, and barricades to help these toads safely navigate busy intersections they are hard-wired to cross.

Started as a grassroots action in 2009, the Toad Detour has grown into a yearly tradition. The Schuylkill Center’s wildlife experts keep a watchful eye out for toad migration, which happens sometime in March depending on our weather conditions. The detour sets up from 7pm to 9pm, lasting for several evenings until all the toads are finished crossing. Six to eight weeks later, it sets up again when all the little toadlets cross back over to embark on their best terrestrial lives. Hundreds of adults are saved each season, and multitudes of itty bitty babies that are adorably impossible to count.

While we can assume our Eastern American toads are grateful for the assistance, the species as a whole isn’t endangered. In fact, toads are considered a “species of least concern” due to their wide range and ability to thrive in a variety of habitats. So why all this effort to save their warty butts? What good are they? Two words: pest control.

When it comes to limiting harmful (and annoying) bug populations, toads are tops. The average adult eats about 1,000 worms, slugs, beetles, larvae, and insects every day, protecting crops and gardens naturally, without pesticides. They hunt at night, waddling slyly up on prey and snaring it with their sticky tongues, using their front legs to stuff the thing down their gullets. They are hungry, indiscriminate eaters.

Toads are also, themselves, an important addition to the food web – a nutritious meal for a variety of predators like snakes, owls, skunks, and raccoons. A toad’s first line of defense is to freeze on the spot and hope their mottled camouflage will conceal them. If that doesn’t work, glands on either side of their heads emit a milky toxin with an extremely bitter taste that’s often enough turn off most attackers. As a last ditch, they’ll inflate their body so they’re hard to swallow.

Toad eggs, tadpoles, and toadlets also provide sustenance for fish, birds, dragonfly larvae, and other vital species in the ecosystem. At all stages of life, the presence of toads is an important environmental indication. With their permeable skin that absorbs water and oxygen, they’re especially sensitive to pollutants, so a robust toad population indicates a healthy environment. Toads also bolster biodiversity, which helps stabilize local ecology.

PRO TIP: Make your backyard more toad-friendly by leaving some areas wild, reducing pesticide use, and providing water sources like shallow dishes or ponds. Protecting wetlands and natural spaces in and around Philadelphia also gives toads the homes they need to survive and thrive.

🐸🧠 TOAD TRIVIA 🧠🐸

1. Several species of snake have developed natural resistance to the toxins in a toad’s skin, while raccoons have learned to just peel it off with their little hands.🦝😬

2. In 13th century Italy, toad medicine (bufotoxin) was prescribed for breathing difficulties. Today, modern medicine target toads for possible uses in cancer research, pain management, heart failure, and dermatology (seems their skin secretions may have antimicrobial properties).

3. Toads don’t have to drink water, they can absorb it through their skin from their surroundings (a handy adaptation during dry spells).

4. Adult toads shed about 4 times per year. Their skin comes off in one piece, which they collect under their tongue and eat it. 😝

5. Toads spend winters underground, burrowing up to a foot down to stay warm below the frost line.

6. Most toads don’t survive more than a year or two; the vast majority die as tadpoles and toadlets. It’s not uncommon however for a toad to live ten years or more in the wild, and three times as long in captivity. The oldest known toad was 36 years old when he died in an unfortunate laboratory accident.

7. There’s a whole family of “toad bugs” that camouflage themselves by mimicking the appearance of baby toads: they have round mottled bodies, bulging eyes, elongated back legs, and they even hop like toads! By impersonating a poisonous creature, they hope to trick predators into passing them up for lunch.

8. One of the most famous toads in human history is the three-legged toad, Jin Chan, in Chinese mythology. An inspiring symbol of wealth and prosperity, it is sometimes attributed magical money-making powers.

9. Toad, the boastful, mischievous character in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 novel The Wind in the Willows was based on the author’s only child, Alastair.

10. Eastern American toads are toxic to pets – not deadly, but still unpleasant. Both cats and dogs can experience excessive drooling, vomiting, and discomfort after licking or mouthing a toad. Flush with water, call your vet for next steps if any.

⚠️🐸 TOAD DETOUR Hops Into Action This Month! 🐸⚠️

In addition to being one of the most unusual feel-good opportunities you’ll find, The Schuylkill Center’s Toad Detour is also fun, family-friendly, and educational. And it’s a model of community cooperation with neighbors, wildlife experts, local police and even the Streets Department working together for the environment. While you can sign up for free in-person (or watch the virtual training), it’s not required and, also, it’s not necessary to handle the toads to be of assistance.

For more information, reach out to volunteer@schuylkillcenter.org or call 215-853-6270. Join the Toad Detour at the Schuylkill Center group on Facebook, and see hats4toads.com for updates. There’s also a full “Toad Detour” documentary on youtube!

The Schuylkill Center in Roxborough also has a Wildlife Clinic at 304 Port Royal Ave, open 7 days/week with a drop-off shed for after hours, call 215-482-7300 or visit schuylkillcenter.org for more info.

Thoughts? Opinions? Strong feelings about which other native animals we should (or shouldn’t) highlight in this year of local fauna features? Please leave your comments below or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com.

Stay tuned for next month’s spotlighted species, and meanwhile read all about last month’s featured Critter, the Eastern Gray Squirrel (also comes in black!).

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