Two things to my mind announce the irrevocable arrival of spring. One is the switch to Daylight Saving Time; the other is the sweet, chiming call of spring peepers.
Vernal ponds and wet roadside ditches are alive these evenings with the joyful noise of this nocturnal frog. Quite unlike well-behaved children of old, these little ones are heard but rarely seen.
At a distance their chorus sounds much like the tinkling of sleigh bells. Up close, though, the wall of sound from a convocation of spring peepers is nearly deafening. This is a trick to confound the enemy, making it difficult for predators to concentrate, let alone find an individual to eat.
It's hard to believe that such a big noise could come from such a tiny amphibian. Spring peepers could perch on your thumb -- they measure from three-quarters of an inch to an inch- and-a-half, with the females slightly larger than the males. It is only the males that sing, unleashing a mighty "Peep!" from a vocal sac nearly as big as their bodies.
They call for love, love, love, of course, hoping to attract girl frogs, who tend to favor a loud, fast calling rate. The dating and mating season begins shortly after the first spring rains, which prompt the frogs to migrate from their woodland bowers under leaf litter to the nearest pond or slough.
Mind you, the frogs may have just thawed out. Spring peepers in winter months concentrate glycerol in their tissues, which acts as a kind of antifreeze for vital organs. The peepers can survive partially frozen like little frogsicles until the arrival of warmer weather tempts them to emerge.
Since it can project its voice like a ventriloquist, you won't necessarily be able to trace a peep to its froggy little source. One trick that may serve the determined frog-watcher is to look for the pulsing of the male's shiny vocal sack - fully enlarged with air, it is almost the size of a quarter.
You'd have to creep up on them and remain very still, since they react to the presence of large, unknown critters by falling silent. They can leap away at astonishing velocity, traveling more than 17 times their body length in a single bound.
After mating, the female peeper laboriously lays between 800 and 1,000 eggs on underwater vegetation. That's quite a feat for a frog barely an inch long, and when you learn that she lays her eggs one at a time, you realize that a woman's work is truly never done.
Following their romantic spring fling, adult peepers return to the woodlands where they lead solitary lives (of quiet desperation?). Eggs hatch into tadpoles, which are actually larger than the adults. It takes about two months for the young to transform themselves into little froglets and leave the pond.
While tadpoles get by eating plant detritus and algae, adult peepers consume a lot of pesky insects, including Asian tiger mosquitoes, carpenter ants, flies, aphids and termites. The snack-sized froggies are in turn consumed by snakes, larger frogs, shrews, muskrats, freshwater fish and mallards, among others. Of course, the predators first have to find these elusive little singers, which, as noted, is easier said than done.
For those who go peeperless in spring (sad fate!), I refer you to this video clip, Spring Peeper Calling, that features close-ups of individuals performing with a peeper chorus. It’s a cheerful thing, this jingling song: "Peep, peep, peep-a-peep!" Sing out, now - winter is vanquished and spring rises anew.
An earlier version of this column appeared in the Star-Ledger, April 2005.
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