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Of rain, and frogs, and the lack thereof

Bill Meredith

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.”
…Kermit the Frog

For reasons that defy logic, I am fascinated by lists of things and have always been a compulsive record-keeper. Many of these records are related to hobbies like birdwatching and gardening…dates of the first house wrens, or the last killing frost…but most are explainable only as habits left over from a career spent studying ecology. Among these arcania is a list of dates when I heard the first spring peepers. This year it was March 27, nearly three weeks later than usual.

Spring peepers, unlike children; are usually heard but not seen. They are miniature frogs, an inch or so long, light tan in color with a brown X-shaped pattern on their back. They are in the tree-frog family, and have tiny suction cups on the ends of their toes which enable them to climb up vertical surfaces. Like all frogs at this latitude, they burrow into the mud and hibernate all winter; they usually emerge in the first week of March if it isn’t too cold. The males wake up in an amorous mood, and immediately begin singing to attract mates. For such small creatures, they are remarkably noisy; you can hear them from distances of several hundred yards. However, when you get close to them they go quiet, so you rarely see them unless you are willing to sit quietly in a cold, wet place until they start singing again. When we were kids we used to catch them and put them in gallon lard buckets; after a while they would begin singing and the bucket would act as a megaphone, making them sound even louder.

I was worried about the peepers this spring because of last year’s drought. Our average annual rainfall in Emmitsburg is a bit over 45 inches, but last year we only received about 28 inches. There were periods in March, July and September when we went several weeks without rain. Contrary to Kermit’s ingenious Spoonerism, those times were not fun; the dry spring meant poor breeding success, the dry summer was not good growing conditions for the young, and the dry fall required them to enter hibernation early with meager fat reserves to live on. This spring there seem to be fewer of them singing than usual.

My education about frogs began early in childhood. My Uncle Fay, who loved to tease us, had a goldfish pond in his yard, and there were always frogs around it. He told me I would get warts if I touched a frog, so if I wanted to catch one I should put salt on its tail and then I could pick it up with a stick. This puzzled me greatly because none of the frogs seemed to have tails; he let me take the salt shaker out to the pond in case I might see one, but I never could get close enough. When I got to school I learned that frogs and toads were amphibians and that they went through a tadpole stage during which, for a short time, they had both legs and tails; but by that time I knew they didn’t cause warts. We raised some in an aquarium, but the teacher wouldn’t let us test the salt technique for catching them.

In times of normal rainfall the ground is quite wet in our back yard, so in years past we were treated to a symphony of frog songs…or a cacophony, depending on your taste in such music. Also, there is a pond in the field off to the southwest, and when we first moved here it was a splendid habitat for frogs and toads. I identified at least six species of frogs and toads there, in addition to the peepers. I recall one evening in the late ‘60s when the bullfrogs were especially loud and I walked to the pond to see them. The pond was full of lily pads; every pad seemed to have a frog on it, and they were all croaking at the top of their voices. The songs, of course, were not just a matter of good fellowship; it was the peak of the mating season, and you could almost see an aura of testosterone rising from the pond. A frog’s brain is limited in the best of circumstances, and in conditions like that they sometimes lose track of what is going on around them. I saw one hapless bullfrog Romeo continuing to sing lustily while being swallowed, rear end first, by one of his larger rivals. It was an image that still comes back to me when I hear someone say he has a frog in his throat.

No one seems to know when or why the pond was made; my guess is that it was dug with horse-drawn plows and scoops sometime in the 1800s. The oldest local residents say it has always been there; some still remember skating on it in the winter, cutting ice from it to store in icehouses for summer use, and swimming or playing in it during the summer months. And some still tell tales of gigging for bullfrogs that originally may have been based on real experiences but have been embellished by countless re-tellings in barber shops and bars until they would be worthy rivals of Mark Twain’s “Jumping Frog” story. But, like so many once-rich habitats, the pond isn’t what it used to be. Since about 1970 the farmers who rent the surrounding fields have been using heavier doses of fertilizer and pesticides, and these chemicals wash into the pond with each rain. The worst episode occurred one summer in the mid-70s when a helicopter was used to spray some kind of herbicide on the field. All of the vegetation in the pond was killed, and there were no frogs for the next couple of years. Eventually a few frogs and toads moved in from other areas, and some of the vegetation was re-established from seeds blown on the wind or carried by waterfowl; but populations have never returned to their former levels. Springtime around the pond is a lot more silent than it used to be.

The pond and its inhabitants are a microcosm of the world. Populations of amphibians of all kinds are decreasing everywhere. There are 19 species of frogs and toads in Maryland; 11 of them occur in Frederick County. Three of them are officially listed as endangered species, but in fact all of them are endangered. Their habitats are being destroyed on a large scale by development and agricultural practices. Even ordinary homeowners must take some responsibility; frogs and toads do not respond well to lawnmowers. And the stresses of toxic pesticides are compounded by our increasingly unstable weather patterns; in the 167 years that records have been kept, we have received less than 30 inches of rain only four times, and two of them have been in this decade. The last songs of the spring peepers may be a warning to us all.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith