A toad in the garden

American toad                                                                                Travis/Flickr

American toad                                                                                Travis/Flickr

Some gardeners are going on lately about their roses, their lady’s mantle and their clematis and that’s all very nice. The big excitement in my garden stems from having something I’ve always wanted but never had before.

I got toad. A bug-eating, slug-slurping, grub-gobbling, shove-the-beetle-in-your-mouth-with-both-hands kind of toad. While I’ve occasionally spotted these critters in the lawn and in the damper woodland verges, I’ve never before had one report for active duty in my garden. I couldn’t be happier, since toads are highly regarded (and extremely efficient) predators of garden pests for whom I feel little sympathy.

Our first encounter came between the dahlias and the pinks at the upper end of the garden. What looked like a piece of mulch suddenly detached itself from the ground and with a short hop, jumped out of my shadow. Toad!

In all likelihood, this was an American toad or a Fowler’s toad, two of the commonest in New Jersey. Both are shades of brown with dry, warty skin and in adulthood could be about my toad’s size, perhaps 2 1/2 inches from the tip of the lip to the bump of the rump.

If I could catch the little bugger, I might be able to count the warts on the dark splotches that decorate his back; the American toad has one or two per splotch, while the Fowler’s toad has three or more. If I could get him flipped over without scaring him (or her) to death, I could check the belly pattern. The flip side of the American toad is spotted and speckled; the Fowler’s belly, plain.

I doubt that toads take well to this sort of examination, but handling a toad will not give you warts. That old wives’ tale probably got started due to the irritating toxins exuded by the toad’s “warts,” which are not warts at all but skin glands that figure in defense.

These, and separate glands behind the toad’s eyes, ooze a poison that discourages most casual predators from wanting a second helping of toad. Some toad-eaters — garter and hognose snakes, ducks, raccoons and skunks — are immune, and also not put off by defensive urination, another toad tactic that pretty much guarantees I’m not kissing one anytime soon.

Fowler's toad                                                             Douglas Mills/Flickr

Fowler's toad                                                             Douglas Mills/Flickr

I’m astonished to learn that toads can have a life expectancy of four to 15 years, alternating summers above ground with long winters hibernating in the soil beneath the frost line. Just think — if I can persuade the toad to stay in my fenced garden, we could have not a romance, perhaps, but certainly a long-term relationship.

Toads often appear where they have not been seen before when heavy rains follow a period of drought. They are encouraged to hang around where they have food, water and shelter from the heat of the day. Give guest toads a saucer of water and a comfy toad hall, fashioned from an overturned flowerpot with a ground-level entrance at least 2 inches wide and 1 1/2 inches high. Hold the pesticides, of course, and let the toad do its work.

Now that I have one toad, I’d love to have more. Although American and Fowler’s toads cross breed, I feel I should settle the identity issue before I match-make, and there is one final, nontactile clue.

The mating calls are different, with the American’s call described as a musical trill something like a high-pitched whistle blown underwater. The Fowler’s call is variously said to resemble “a harsh scream-like sound” and “a herd of sheep calling in the night.” I can’t say that I’ve noticed either so far.

I may have to order the CD “Calls of New Jersey Frogs and Toads,” a blockbuster best seller available from the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. The CD is available for $8.95 through the website at http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/store/books/

Male toads call endlessly to attract mates, but they are appallingly indiscriminate. When their dander is up, they will mate with almost anything — frogs, small fish, fallen leaves and other male toads, who have a specific, irritated “release chirp” for these unsettling instances.

In myth toads have a certain gravitas, being associated with the supernatural, and a certain contemplative wisdom. “The clever men at Oxford/Know all there is to be knowed/ But they none of them know half as much/As intelligent Mr. Toad,” Kenneth Grahame tells us in “Wind of the Willows.”

I can’t give this take on things much credence in light of the Latin word for the toad’s genus: Bufo. As in comic opera? Hmmm. This does suggest some names for the toad in the garden — Figaro if it’s a boy, Zerbinetta if it’s a girl.