How you describe them depends on your point of view. A toad must look like Godzilla to a fly or a beetle, its gaping maw emitting a lightning fast tongue. To a king snake, a toad must look something like a lobster does to us. To an experienced cat or dog, a toad has the look of dangerous ugliness and is something to be avoided – its parotid glands are capable of emitting painful and sometimes deadly cardio-toxic steroids. Personally, I think toads look like curmudgeons.
Toads, like their frog cousins, are predators that play unseen but critical roles in the ecosystem. They are generalists that will eat any animal they can capture and swallow. And because they are abundant, they consume vast quantities of insects. Their place in the food chain makes them a good indicator of the health of an ecosystem.
Where we live, habitat fragmentation is probably the biggest threat to toads. They get confused by streets and driveways and never quite understand what is going on. When the breeding urge strikes them, they travel certain routes in droves, like the place on my street where uncountable numbers of them are run over on warm spring nights. They are little knots of purposeful nature that don’t know about cars, or Mozart, or politics that keep crossing our street even though probably half of their relatives are getting mashed in the process.
Toad mating is chaos. The male American toad – the most common species in Carroll County – arrives at the breeding grounds in early spring, sets up camp near shallow water and begins to sing. His mighty trills can last up to 30 seconds. Every little while, he will jump in the water and swim out to see if he has attracted anybody. Not to be too graphic, but in his passion he tackles anything that vaguely resembles a toad because from a distance he can’t tell a male from a female.
Although the females are bigger than the males and their skin is noticeably rougher, these characteristics are apparently obvious only to people. The innocent male victim struggles with his attacker before reality takes control and the attacker returns to his spot on the shore. Whether he feels rejected or not, no one knows.
The females prefer the males with the longest and richest trills. Zoologists can only guess why. They think that more effort put into song may signal more effort put into mating. But I have my doubts about what goes on in the mind of a female toad. I don’t even have a clear picture of what goes on in a human female’s mind, and don’t know a man who does.
Except when gathering to mate, toads live alone – like most curmudgeons. They spend their nights sitting under streetlights eating bugs and being mashed by cars. Whether they think curmudgeonly thoughts or have curmudgeonly feelings I can’t say, and I am not about to speculate. Only a toad knows what it is to be a toad.
Tate is a Carrollton resident and bird enthusiast.