Frogs and Toads

First of all, no. Handling toads will not give you warts. I wonder if this even is what children are told anymore, as I was when I was a kid a million years ago. Growing up in an area with lots of creeks and ponds nearby, our backyard had a great population of toads – the huge and warty Western Toad – and as kids we always had a great time walking around with them in our hands. We could collect hundreds of the “pollywogs” – or tadpoles – that toads and frogs start as, bring them home in jars, and raise them in tubs in our backyard until they transformed to the tail-less stage we recognize as toads and frogs. Eventually we’d have hundreds of these mini-toads hopping around in our lawn and gardens, feeding on the many bugs that are present in these habitats.

Of course, when we handled the big toads they always would spill a bunch of fluid onto our hands, and judging from the look on our dog’s face when he tried to eat one I suppose that fluid must have a terrible taste, and serve as a means of defense by the toad who preferred NOT to be eaten. Many toads and frogs have skin secretions that are laced with toxic and bitter substances, and the predator attempting to feed on them learns that lesson very quickly. Some snakes are able to tolerate these chemical defenses, and it is said that raccoons will roll the frog or toad around in the dirt before eating it, to rub off the slimy secretions first. Of course, most of us are very familiar with the “poison arrow” frogs found in the jungles of South America, whose skin secretions are actually used by native peoples there on the tips of their arrows. The poison acts so quickly that animals pierced by the arrows are immobilized within minutes, and are easier for the natives to gather for their food.

With the love of nature my parents instilled in us my brother and I realized early on the tremendous benefit toads and frogs provide for us in our yards and environment. In North America nearly all species of toads and frogs are harmless to people and pets (the attempted dog-meal not withstanding) and given that they feed for the most part on bugs they obviously are desirable animals to have around. Some of the larger frogs or toads will also feed on snails or slugs, adding another benefit to their presence in our gardens.

Much of my childhood, on weekends, was spent on our family boat in the many rivers and sloughs of the Sacramento River system in northern California, and it was here that we were introduced to bullfrogs. These enormous animals make a tremendous sound when the males are singing, and “croaking” just does not do justice to the loud, deep-throated bellow they make. However, for me it was just part of the background sounds you could hear in that river system at night, and pretty much lulled me to sleep. The croaking of some frogs and toads, however, is not a lullaby for many people, and thus the potential for complaints. It’s not at all uncommon for homeowners to contact a pest management company and ask them to do some “frog control”. Seems that the racket of hundreds of frogs all croaking together at night is driving them bonkers.

Background music to me is unbearable noise to others, and I can understand this. In the springtime several low areas near my home fill with water, and as the weather warms the frogs increase their numbers. In the early evening, as I drive past one of these low areas, the level of sound coming from that temporary pond could only be described as a deafening din. For those residents with homes adjacent to this area it definitely could become a party they could do without.

What can be done? Well, chemically there is not an awful lot to be offered. There are certainly no pesticides labeled for the control of frogs or toads, and there are not likely to be any in the future. The benefits from these Amphibians is just too great to have a reason to begin killing them with toxic materials. There are exceptions of course, for on occasion we manage to import some problems. In fact, that beloved bullfrog of my childhood is an imported animal, introduced to the western U.S. as a food item. It is implicated in the decline of native frogs, a rare snake species, and even young pond turtles. These are large and hungry predators that will eat many things besides insects.

In the southeastern United States and in Hawaii another import is the Marine Toad, also called the Cane Toad as well as many other names. This large toad was imported as a hopeful biological control animal to eat insects in crops. It may be quite efficient at this, but as it turns out this is also a highly toxic toad, able to exude poisonous fluids from glands behind its eyes. Predators that attempt to eat this toad are made sick or even killed, and many cats and dogs have died from the toxin, either as a result of trying to feed on the toad or from toxins released into the food bowls of these pets when the toad itself ate the pet food.

These are the odd exceptions though, and toxic frogs are pretty much non-existent in the United States, leaving it only to the very few toxic toads instead. So, that leaves their “pest” status as nuisance only, either from the racket they can make when large numbers of them gather in ponds, or from the slight mess they can make when they defecate on things in the yard or home. Many of the smaller frogs, which we often call “tree” frogs, are adept climbers, and may climb up outside walls or other vertical surfaces in order to find places to hide. These amphibians need to stay moist, and thus are active mostly at night. They then hide themselves away in the daytime and seek a moist location to do this. The chosen spot often is within dense foliage, but it also may be behind planters or behind objects on outside walls, where the dampness remains high. On several occasions I have lifted back the cover on my hot tub at home, particularly on winter nights, and found a couple of the small frogs huddled under the loose flap of the cover, relishing the warmth and moisture trapped there.

Being a lover of nature and living things perhaps I have a higher tolerance for wildlife in my yard than others do. However, there are many animals, including many kinds of insects, that we can find in our landscapes that serve us a benefit by being there. There may be a nuisance level when the bugs crawl into our homes or the frogs begin their loud croaking, but for these beneficial animals the best control is no control. We keep them out of our homes by prevention, by closing off the gaps under doors or other openings that they use to enter. This “pest exclusion” is a good permanent control measure that uses no toxins at all, and we achieve the second benefit of better home climate control as well.

Since almost all frogs and toads require an aquatic environment for their tadpole stage we can help to reduce the populations of these animals by eliminating water resources. Again, this is for those people who would prefer not to have large numbers of these animals in their yards. Any water that remains for a couple of weeks or longer could produce a generation of frogs or toads, and if it can be drained without affecting the environment in any negative way then this is another long-term control. This also reduces the potential breeding sources of mosquitoes, a far more threatening animal than amphibians.

We can discourage the presence of frogs and toads in our yards by reducing the harborage sites. Toads, in particular, will hide under objects on the soil. Frequently I have turned over boards that have been resting on the ground for awhile, only to find a huge, fat toad nestled into a cavity in the soil under that board, enjoying the dampness and darkness it needed to survive the sunlight hours. We can eliminate piles of yard rubbish and old lumber piles, restack firewood onto racks above the soil, and trim back thick groundcovers so that sunlight can reach the soil below.

If you happen to be living near a pond or creek that is producing large numbers of frogs or toads, you can prevent their movement into your own yard if that is what you desire. Prior to the migration of the young frogs and toads out of their water environment you could place barriers that redirect them to someplace other than your yard. A low “fence” of sheet metal, plastic, or even mesh screens will prevent the migrating animals from marching onto property you don’t want them on. You are not going to be able to find any chemical repellents for frogs or toads, so again, a chemical answer is not available for their control.

It pays to keep in mind that the presence of numbers of frogs and toads in your landscape generally is a sign of a healthy environment. These amphibians are considered good indicators of environmental problems, so in addition to eating a lot of bugs that would otherwise bother you, their presence tells you that things in general are doing well. As long as we don’t try to eat them they cannot hurt us in any way, and if we look at them with an open mind we might even realize that they are quite beautiful.