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SCOTT SHALAWAY Toads can be a gardener's best friend



Published: Sun, July 29, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



While stumbling around our poorly-lit basement the other day, I noticed something move near the door leading outside. It was a huge toad -- 4 inches long and almost as wide. Apparently it discovered a small hole in the door and now uses the basement as its daytime den.

My first thought was how other members of the family would react. My wife, the same woman who can't stand even the sight of a snake, thinks, & quot;It is so cute. & quot; Emma, 11, hates it for no apparent reason. And Nora will probably leave for college next month without ever having ventured into the basement, so we'll never know her reaction.

Toads are among a back yard's best friends. They eat vast quantities of insects including grasshoppers, beetles, true bugs, moths and many more. Many are garden pests, so if you find a toad among the vegetables or flowers, let it be.

Toads also help themselves to the crawling and low-flying insects outdoor lights attract. And this might be your best bet to see them in action. In silence, a toad waits patiently for a meal to venture too close. Then, zap! A flash of a deceptively long tongue and another moth disappears behind its lips.

A sight to see: A toad is a remarkable eating machine. Because it has no teeth and a slow, awkward hopping style, a toad relies on patience to fill its belly. Just watch one for about 30 minutes. It grabs something every few minutes. If it takes a break, it's more likely due to a sated appetite than an inability to catch prey.

American toads (Bufo americanus) inhabit many back yards in the east, even in cities. They spend their days under stairs, rocks, logs, tall grass or in burrows or basements -- places where the air is cool and relatively moist. They emerge nightly in search of food. This is when they are easiest to find.

Check it out: After watching for a while, pick the toad up and examine it. Remember, it has no teeth, so it cannot bite. Study the rather rough, warty skin. Because its skin is thicker than most other amphibian skin, toads can wander and live hundreds of yards from the pools, ponds, and puddles in which they were hatched. Except for the springtime reproductive season, toads live a mostly terrestrial life.

Back in March and April, males returne to their ancestral ponds and puddles and attract females with a loud, melodious trilling song. By inflating the balloon-like vocal sac found under the throat, males increase the volume and resonance of their call. When a female approaches, the pair couples, and the male fertilizes the gelatinous string of eggs the female secretes. She may lay as many as 25,000 eggs.

Under the ideal conditions of a warm spring, the eggs and tadpoles develop rapidly. Toadlets, juveniles as small as a quarter inch, may be found as early as mid-May.

When one handles a toad, it may urinate. But don't worry. Neither toad urine nor their glandular secretions causes warts in humans.

Stay away: Most predators, including dogs and cats, learn quickly to avoid toads. It takes only one distasteful encounter. The warts that cover the relatively thick skin of toads are clumps of swollen poison glands. The most prominent are called the paratoids and are located behind the eyes on either side of the neck.

The toxin in these glands is strong enough to sicken almost any predator that takes a toad into its mouth. Small dogs can even die if they swallow a mouthful. That's why most predators learn quickly to avoid these foul-tasting insect eaters. Hog-nosed snakes, which are apparently immune to the toxin, are one of the few predators that regularly eat toads.

Though a toad's glandular poison does not cause warts, it can irritate the mucous membranes in your eyes or nose. So be sure to wash your hands after handling a toad.

When your study session is over, return the toad to the place you found it. Or put it in the garden. A toad's appetite alone should be enough to earn your hospitality.

X Send questions and comments to Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, WV 26033, or e-mail him at sshalaway@aol.com.




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