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The Garden Toad

The Garden Toad

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

I am always looking for story ideas for the newsletter, and I literally jumped at this one.

My potting bench is on my deck. It has a deep drawer where I keep seed packets, plant labels, string, and other odds and ends. I was rummaging around in the back of it when I poked something soft. The soft thing moved.

After levitating about two feet in the air, I landed and looked into the drawer. Glaring at me from the back corner was a toad. Although the drawer is not airtight, I’m at a loss as to how he got in there.

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He seemed perfectly fine, and a bit put out when I evicted him to a leafy part of the garden near a stone wall, what I thought would be far more comfortable toad habitat.

My encounter has had me thinking about toads lately, because in this wet, heavy summer I’ve been seeing more of them than usual, and not just in my potting bench. And while I see toads every year, I don’t really know much about them. So I decided to do some research.

My toad is the American toad (Anaxyrus americanus), the one most likely to be seen in gardens throughout the U.S. In fact, they are so common there, that they’re known as garden toads. Squat, warty, and two to three and a half inches long, garden toads are nocturnal, coming out at night to hunt. Carnivorous, they mostly eat insects, but have been known to eat small reptiles and even other amphibians. While toads do hop, they are more likely to crawl around to hunt, sitting still when they see a slug or beetle, and catching it with a quick flick of a sticky tongue.

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This toad has moved from pot to pot around my deck all summer.

During the day they hide in leaf litter or under rocks, though I frequently find them in my containers, under my deck, or in corners in my garage. Toads can live five years or more, hibernating through winter.

Their dull gray, brown, or green mottled coloring helps them blend into their surroundings. They can change their skin color depending on temperature, humidity, and the surrounding habitat. The one in the silver metal drawer of my potting bench was gray and turned brown once in the garden.

The round discs right behind and below a toad’s eyes are external eardrums, giving them excellent hearing. Behind those are parotoid glands. These glands excrete a toxin that makes the toad poisonous to predators. It causes mouth and throat irritation and can even kill some small animals. Toads can make dogs or cats who eat one quite sick and can also cause an allergic reaction if a person’s skin comes in contact with the toxin. Despite this defense system, a lot of animals eat toads, including snakes, raccoons, and birds.

Toads have expandable vocal sacs in their necks which they inflate with air, then force that air over their vocal cords. Each species has a distinctive call. Some croak, some whistle, some even click. Males (but rarely females) make sounds to attract a mate, sound a distress call or protect territory.

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Toads usually breed in the water, though some lay eggs in moist areas on land. The male fertilizes the eggs externally, as the female lays them. The eggs hatch into tadpoles and go through metamorphosis. A tadpole’s tail allows it to move through water, and as it matures, the tail disappears, and the toad migrates to land.

American toads are not considered endangered, but amphibians in general are declining around the world in alarming numbers, due to pesticide and other chemical use, as well as habitat destruction. Toads breathe through their skin as well as their lungs, making them extremely sensitive to poisons.

To attract toads, create a moist environment with hiding places such as rock walls, boards, fallen logs, or a toad house. A small pond or water feature will draw them. Don’t use pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals.

Toads are good and we want them in our gardens. Their presence is a sign that the surrounding waterways are clean enough to support them. In addition to the pest insects they eat, and the croaking songs they sing in the summer night, they are part of the rhythm of nature that exists right outside our door.

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