Listening to frogs
The peepers came out this week, filling the air with their high, shrill song. They are tiny frogs, only about an inch long, and they occupy the vernal ponds in the woods behind our house, the swamp down the road, the culverts and just about any wet place around here.
My friend in Greenfield calls every year when she hears the first peeper song, usually about a week before they come out in our woods. The announcers on the public radio station in Canton talked about their peepers a few days later.
It’s a rite of spring in our Northeastern clime, the first true sign of warmth.
My daughter takes walks out into the woods, without her noisy brother, and stops at the suddenly silent pools to see if she can be still enough to make the peepers forget she’s there and start singing again.
A few days after the peepers started, we heard the bullfrogs by the lake, sounding something between a twanging rubber bands and geese. When my husband walks the oxen down to the beach, they stop to listen. Bullfrogs like to think they’re as big as oxen, and will puff up their air bladders to seem more imposing. Their voices are the same — much bigger than they are.
Aesop thought of them as braggarts. Emily Dickinson thought them boors. (“How public, like a frog. To tell your name the livelong day to an admiring bog.”)
I think of both the peepers and bullfrogs as exuberant, happy to greet spring and the world, kind of like our neighbor down the road who, since he was a little kid, comes running out of his house shouting “Hello, Hartleys! Hello! How are you!” whenever we walk by.
It’s spring, and everyone wants to talk about it. And if you spent the winter curled up like a deflated little ball, under a log or a foot of icy mud, you would probably shout as loud as you could when you finally got out into the warming air again.
It’s still not warm enough for our big brown toads to be out, or the red efts, the bright orange, spotted salamanders that live in our woods and mountains. We’ll wait another month for them.
Despite their loud song, I rarely see the peepers, and I have never picked one up. This is strange because when my daughter was little I had to pick every frog, toad or salamander we came across, to place gently in her tiny hands.
I didn’t really mind, except for the fact that I have never in my life held a frog or toad that didn’t pee in my hand.
“They never pee on me,” my daughter would tell me, proudly, before she carefully set her specimen back down, off the trail, where it wouldn’t get stepped on.
The toads were huge when we first moved to our house, which had been vacant for a year. They are smaller now, the distant descendants of those aged toads. But they’re still around in abundance, in the garden, by the rain barrels, behind the ox shed.
Where we live there is plenty of moist woodland and swampy ground for the frogs and other lovers of boggy places.
But increasingly, development has pushed out wetlands, and amphibians worldwide are in trouble.
Fewer kinds of frogs, toads and amphibians of any kind emerge from hibernation each year to greet the spring. Habitat destruction, from development and from warming temperatures, tops the list of threats to amphibians.
Pollution, disease and overharvesting for the pet and food industries add to the threat.
More than 170 species of frogs have disappeared in the past two decades, and around 2,000 more are threatened, according to scientists cited in the journal Nature and in National Geographic. One-third of all amphibian species are threatened or endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
It’s an alarming rate of loss. And April 30 has been designated “Save the Frog Day,” an annual event designed to increase awareness of the plight of frogs and amphibians in general. It’s the kind of holiday you wish we didn’t need.
Save The Frogs, the nonprofit educational organization behind the holiday, runs essay, poetry and art contests for kids, and offers classroom materials for teachers, including pictures of extinct and endangered species.
Our local teachers can take their students out for walks to observe our local frogs, collect tadpoles and raise young right in the classroom. There’s a pond (actually, a rainwater catchment) behind my son’s classroom where the frogs lay their eggs every spring.
I wonder if the kids know how lucky they are, that they can still catch tadpoles, raise up frogs and release them back to the shore. Maybe we should be teaching them not to take that for granted.
Maybe that’s what the peepers are singing about.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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