Roy Lukes: Get to Know the American Toad

It happened this past Sept. 27 when Charlotte, our friends Beth and Don Bartoli from Kenosha, and I were hiking on Rock Island in Northern Door that our eagle-eyed friend, Don, found a large Garter Snake which had caught an American Toad. We marveled at the find, took some pictures of the hind legs of the toad still protruding from the snake’s mouth, and then Don let go of the reptile he had so carefully been holding by the tail.

How surprisingly fast that snake, large bulge of the toad easily discernable in about the middle of its total length, slithered away into hiding. Soon that snake will be searching for a crevice to find refuge during the coming winter. Surely the meal of the large toad will help sustain it during the long winter.

Garter snake and toad charlotte lukes

A Garter Snake caught an American Toad and consumed it with the rear legs going down last. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

How pleasantly I can recall the mild spring evening in 1938 that my parents took my three brothers and me to visit with my Mom’s Uncle Walter Barr and his wonderful wife, our Aunt Mandy, on their farm several miles north of Kewaunee. Approximately 10 acres of open wet marshy land lay between the Barr’s farm and their neighbors, the Meyers, to the east.

Ivan, Leo and I sat on the low bank along the east side of the Barr’s house and listened to the sweet and mellow frog and toad chorus going on continuously. We were too young to be able to identify the species doing the singing, but my guess is that there were Spring Peepers, Leopard and Wood Frogs, along with lots of American Toads.

Few people, at first guess, would match the warty brown, cold-blooded, ugly, venomous American Toad with the long sustained musical trill. Never once did my brothers and I have the slightest notion that the lovely musical trills came from the toads.

If you can hum and whistle at the same time (naturally with lips open and puckered), then you can make much the same musical tone that a toad makes. The trill rate of the toad’s tremulous whistle is about 30 trills per second. The male makes it with his throat puffed out to a nearly globular shape, forming a vocal sac. The sound is produced by the air drawn in at the nostrils, then passed back and forth from lungs to the mouth over the vocal chords, all the while the inflated throat sac is acting as a resonator. Time a toad’s song. You’ll be surprised at how many seconds it may last.

I’ve seen a lot of people call frogs toads and toads frogs. They are simple to tell apart. For one thing, a toad’s skin is dry and warty, and a toad hops. Frogs are wet, smooth and slippery, and they leap. And don’t ever be tricked into believing that you will get warts if you touch a toad. This is absolutely false.

Shakespeare wrote, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” I will agree. The eye of the toad has be one of the most beautiful and jewel-like of all animal eyes. Due to the ease with which you can catch a toad, it will be a most pleasant experience to look one squarely in the eye. Don’t be too surprised, however, if this harmless little animal urinates in your hand! Such a slow-moving amphibian must have some means of defense.

Should you get too rough with the toad, it very likely will give off a milky poison over its body, which may be quite painful if you get some into your eyes. Dogs will rarely attack a toad a second time. This substance, gotten into their mouths, will cause them to squeal and howl and roll over and over on the ground. Toads can also “play dead.” Their soft brown warty skin helps them to blend in very well with the ground.

You can be sure that the singing of the toads is not going on during mild spring nights just to make people happy. The males have found quiet shallow ponds and are broadcasting their presence to females waiting nearby. When the female toad is ready to lay eggs she swims out to the singing male who, with the help of dark somewhat rough nuptial pads on his thumbs and index “fingers,” clasps her tightly around the neck from above. As she lays eggs into the water he fertilizes them. Anywhere from 4,000 to 20,000 eggs will be laid by a single female during a period of as much as 18 hours.

american toad roy lukes

Frogs will leap away from humans but the American Toad seems to have no fear. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The breeding season reaches its peak when the surface water has been warmed by the sun to about 65 degrees F., the air to about 70 degrees F. Toad eggs are laid in long, transparent jelly-like cables of mucus. They hatch in about four days into incredibly small one-eighth-inch long tadpoles. In about six to eight weeks they will have transformed into four-legged creatures. Little is known about how long one might live. However, a European species of Bufo lived to be 36 years old!

Do you have problems in summer with spiders, slugs, cutworms, armyworms or tent caterpillars in your garden? If you do, get some toads. It is estimated that in a four-month period one large hungry toad will consume up to 10,000 of these injurious insects!

The toad’s flexible sticky tongue, fastened to the front of its mouth, can lash out for a distance of up to two inches. By the way, toads cannot eat in total darkness. They must be able to detect movement. They feed strictly upon living moving insects.

It is rather uncommon to see toads during hot summer daylight hours. Usually they dig shallow burrows into moist soil with their hind legs and then back into them. They will use the same burrow, often concealed by debris or plants, many times during a summer.

Come fall the toads will slowly dig their ways down into the soft, moist soil. They must dig themselves deeply enough into the soil to remain below the frost line, and how they accomplish this, heaven only knows. With the arrival of the warmth of spring, inch by inch, up they come to the active world of life they left nearly six months ago. Once again the male’s soothing, far-reaching, echoing trills will carry through the sweet spring air.

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