One pleasant thing about tending a garden is the chance to spend time with wild creatures that live and work there, or are passing through. Gardeners will excitedly report a visit from a hummingbird or a pileated woodpecker.
But few ever mention one of my favorites, the toad. Bulgy-eyed, warty and rather sleepy-looking as it squats among the bean rows, it is not what conservationists would call a charismatic species. The toad needs a champion. Toad-dom has no Kermit. There are no Teenage Mutant Ninja Toads.
But if you’ve ever gardened with a toad you know what great company they can be. Those that frequent my plot belong to the species Bufo americanus, the American toad. As babies they are smaller than my thumbnail. Full-grown, they are plump (especially the females) and nearly as wide as my hand. A toad will often sit and sun itself next to where I am weeding, within easy reach if I choose to touch it. When I move a foot down the row, the toad follows, keeping just ahead of me.
Since toads are not plant-eaters, my amphibian buddy never interferes with my work. Its job is simply to sit there and nab any insect, worm or grub that happens by. Although it eats some garden helpers, such as earthworms and spiders, a large part of its diet is slugs, mosquitoes, tent caterpillars, snails, sow bugs and other garden pests. Like a frog, it has a long, sticky tongue that it flicks out to catch its meal. Interestingly, it will eat only prey that is moving. I can relate to a creature that insists that its food be fresh.
Though slow and easy to catch, I leave the toad alone. Its parotid glands secrete a substance that would irritate my eyes and mouth if I got it on my hands. (Just watch a dog with a toad in its jaws!) But I’m glad the toad is there, and it in turn finds my garden a friendly habitat.
Toads, like their close relatives the frogs, begin their lives in ponds. Unlike frogs, they stay there only a month or two, and even a springtime pool — no more than a large puddle — is enough to start them out in life. This is where the adults mate. You can hear the males’ high-pitched courting trill and see the females’ long strands of eggs. These hatch quickly to produce thousands of tadpoles. As soon as they are landworthy, those that have escaped predators make their way into fields, woods and gardens. The adults follow later.
When choosing a home, toads like to be near some form of water, which they must absorb periodically through their skin. This could just be a shallow garden pool, but it needs to have gently sloping sides, or at least a log they can use as a ramp. Even a ground-level bird bath is sufficient if it is kept full. Uncovered swimming pools, on the other hand, are death traps, and ponds with hungry fish also pose a danger.
Toads need a place to burrow during the heat of the day (most of their hunting is at night) and hide from snakes, skunks and large birds such as crows, hawks and owls. They’ll live under a brush pile or a log, in a hole under a rock or a board.
In England, where toads are more appreciated (think of the one in the classic story “The Wind in the Willows”), people will often create toad dwellings. An upside-down flower pot with a toad-size opening cut into the rim is one such arrangement. The kindhearted English even build toad tunnels under roadways, to keep the amphibians from being squashed as they migrate from pond to field.
Sadly, toads are diminishing worldwide, as are amphibians and reptiles in general. Possible causes include loss of habitat, stronger UV rays resulting from the thinning ozone layer, and countless air, water and soil contaminants, to which these animals are sensitive.
The most important thing gardeners can do is to avoid all poisons that might affect them in ways we can’t always predict. Providing water and “toad holes” can help. Don’t try to import them — just let them come. They’re the best judge of whether they can survive in your yard. Take it as a compliment if they do.