Many people would agree the earthworm could be a gardener’s best friend, but there is another little garden friend who can be equally as beneficial: the American toad (Bufo americanus). Now before we start worrying about warts and slime, backyard amphibians provide a great number of benefits just from their presence. Toads show the health of the garden by keeping pesky insects at bay and indicating if toxic chemicals are lurking in the soil. These creatures also provide a rewarding lesson for nature lovers of all ages. As someone who has grown up watching toads, I have found that providing spaces in my garden has become a wonderful way to connect people to the outdoors and inspires others to think about their backyards.
If you ever sat outside on a warm spring evening and listened to the high pitch trills of an American toad, you have already enjoyed the pleasures of our native amphibians. However, if those times included a few bug bites, you might need a few more toads to help gobble up some mosquitos. Despite their boisterous singing, toads often are misunderstood or even forgotten in our outdoor excursions. Brown and usually no more than the size of a golf ball, toads can go unnoticed in our gardens because they blend so well with the leaves and mulch. They are veracious diggers and can make a home under brick pathways or pavers, hiding under our very feet during daylight hours. Once established, these nighttime hoppers can take care of up to 10,000 bugs in a summer, including mosquitos, slugs, and other insects that may plague your plants.
Toads are biotic indicator species because they are animals that can show the health of an environment. Amphibians are tied to the water. They do not drink through their mouths like we do. Instead they absorb moisture directly through their skin, which allows any chemicals in the soil or water to be taken in as well. I always ask my students, “Would you drink your bug spray?” Would you do the same with your fertilizer or weed-killer? Those chemicals are taken in by both the plants and animals in your garden, which means going barefoot on the lawn could be riskier than you think. If a toad is happy enough to be in my front yard, I know my feet are walking on safe earth and my vegetables are clean eating.
The most endearing lesson about these amphibians is that they are not as common as we believe. Amphibian numbers are on the decline due to pollution, habitat destruction, and diseases like chytrid fungus that are easily spread with human progress. In our area, vernal pools are essential for amphibians. These are temporary ponds created by snowmelt and spring rains. They contain no predatory fish that would gobble up tiny eggs and tadpoles. However, a hot day can result in those delicate young drying up with their homes. Likewise, as people develop more land, vernal pools become filled in or polluted. Even a hard winter can destroy a pond if too much road salt pollutes the soil and water. Only healthy, unspoiled vernal pools will result in tiny toads that will disperse to find their next home.
So how can you bring a toad to your backyard? If you live close to the forest, you may already have some hiding out there. In more developed areas, luring in toads might be a bit more challenging. It all starts with a place to live. The simplest toad homes begin with an overturned pot propped up just enough for the toad to fit underneath. The other side should be buried to create a nice dark, damp space. Be sure to place your toad home in a location that is shady with ground cover, giving the toad a safe area to hunt for insects. Amphibians also need a source of water. A shallow dish works perfectly and allows them to climb out easily. Many people take great pleasure in decorating their toad abodes with custom built houses or landscaped water dishes, but your toad will appreciate the location far more than the exterior. One recommendation is a small solar light to draw flying insects to your toad house, but once a toad has moved in, they may faithfully stay for many years.
With that in mind, a frightened toad can protect itself from a curious dog or cat. When threatened, toads may urinate and/or secrete a sticky white poison from the glands behind their eye, which can make your pet sick if ingested. This poison does not pose a problem for humans, but you should always wash your hands before and after handling a toad. This is for your safety as well as the toad’s! Toads are fragile, so always cup a toad in your hands rather than squeeze. Some toads will even become accustomed to handling if routinely fed a wriggling insect. Always return a toad to where it was found and never one take away from its home. I teach my campers that a toad has its own home just like we do and to move it would be like taking us to another country.
Toads can be a great lesson for kids and adults. Their life cycle shows how closely they live with the water while providing a reminder that other animals share our space, too. They provide endless wonderment for both my summer campers and me. I hope that you, too, will find these amphibians as a source of joy, especially when they may be disappearing fast than we think. Do you have a spot in mind for your garden? Get hopping!
Stephanie Sherman is the Summer Camp Director and Special Events Coordinator for Pocono Environmental Education Center. Growing up near the Lehigh Valley, Stephanie has spent most of her life chasing toads and other outdoor critters. She has spent the last ten years working for and studying various environmental education centers in Northeast Pennsylvania. Her passion is bringing people closer to nature through hands-on experience. Email: SSherman@peec.org. Phone: 570-828-2319. Website: peec.org