By Nicole Rivard
During the summers of my childhood, my mom frequently would get after my sister and I to go outside and play. It wasn’t because she had read the Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, which hadn’t been published yet (I’m currently reading and highly recommend it). I think it was just easier to tidy the house if we weren’t under foot.
In hindsight, I am eternally grateful she didn’t let us stay indoors glued to a television set or video games. Because the outdoors is where we built stick forts in the woods, discovered the smell and texture of skunk cabbage and ferns, encountered daddy long leg spiders, snakes, chipmunks, birds, salamanders and our all-time favorites—frogs and toads. The pond in our backyard provided the perfect habitat for them and families of ducks too.
It was fascinating to see frog eggs hatch into tadpoles, tadpoles grow two front legs and their tales grow shorter and shorter until they became adults. Then their croaking serenaded us during our night swimming adventures. Speaking of which, we rescued many amphibians who couldn’t get out of the swimming pool after they chose to dive in. (These days my parents have the Frog Log, a floating platform so wildlife can climb out on their own.)
I hadn’t thought about my love of frogs until I saw the article “Kicking it with Frogs” in a recent issue of National Geographic. I was dumbfounded to learn about frog-spotting—like birdwatching but with frogs—and decided I must add a trip to Costa Rica to my bucket list, right after “trip to Africa.”
The article explained that like birders, frog spotters have lists and their own jargon. They keep odd hours, swat at mosquitoes and wear close-toed shoes to prevent snake bites.
I had to know more. So, I reached out to Save the Frogs, the California-based amphibian conservation non-profit that organizes the ecotours in Costa Rica and educates people about the plight of amphibians worldwide.
What I learned from founder/ecologist Kerry Kriger is that people describe his frog spotting trips as lifechanging. He gets a lot of repeat guests.
“They are really well organized,” he said, “but really nature does most of it for us. We just get people into really beautiful places with a lot of wildlife.”
Kriger also taught me why frogs matter, why the world is rapidly losing frogs and what we can do to protect them in our own backyards.
Frogs are bioindicators, living organisms that are sensitive to changes in their environment, so they give us an idea of the health of an ecosystem. The frogs and toads meant that my family and I had a thriving backyard ecosystem, Kriger explained.
They are both predator and prey, so many animals are affected by them. They are prey for birds, snakes, raccoons, foxes, otters, opossums, turtles and even fish.
Frogs (and toads too) keep a check on flies and mosquitoes, who act as disease vectors and spread diseases to humans.
What gardeners should know is that frogs eat the bugs—more than 100 beetles, cutworms, grubs and slugs a day and 10,000 during a garden season—that prompt people who want the perfect garden to use a variety of pesticides.
Unfortunately, people don’t know this and instead of trying to attract more amphibians, they opt for more pesticides. And then it becomes not so easy being green—pesticides are one of the biggest threats to frogs along with habitat destruction from human development, the pet trade, medicine and human consumption.
Kiger, who has campaigned to get the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the herbicide atrazine, explains that pesticides and herbicides are toxic chemicals that generally undergo little to no testing on amphibians prior to their being approved for use. But many end up in waterways, where amphibians live and breed.
The California red-legged frog is one of the 10 U.S. species most threatened by pesticide use, according to the Endangered Species Coalition’s latest annual report. Atrazine, one of the most commonly used herbicides—around 80 million pounds of this herbicide is applied annually to agricultural products in the United States—is one of the chemicals that is threatening these frogs, who are especially vulnerable because their skins are permeable and ingestion happens all over their bodies. Atrazine, an endocrine disruptor, can cause hermaphroditism in frogs (males grow female sex organs), alter neurotransmitters and stunt growth, cause deformities, and reduce survivorship in salamanders.
Atrazine also affects water quality in lakes, resulting in more snails. These snails serve as intermediary hosts of a trematode parasite that burrows into the developing limbs of tadpoles and causes limb malformations. Research also shows that the pesticide Roundup is lethal to the gray treefrog and leopard frog tadpoles.
In addition to not using pesticides and herbicides and instead opting for organic lawn and garden care—I promise it will still look beautiful—you can do the following things to attract frogs and toads to your yard.
§ Create a pond. You can purchase free-form or pre-formed liners at places like Home Depot. Cement is also an option as a pond liner. Learn more here: nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife/Water/Backyard-Ponds.
§ Create/buy a toad abode. A toad abode is a small ceramic house. You can purchase one on Amazon.com or simply turn a ceramic flowerpot upside down and prop it up with a rock so the toad can get in and out. Toads like to dig so no floor is necessary. Place your toad abode in a shady spot near a water source, such as a small pond or even larger saucer of water.
§ Build your own wetland. Unlike a pond a wetland can be seasonal. Survey your property for a relatively flat area, with a slope of less than 6 percent. To retain water you can: rely on preexisting ground water that fills the hole you dig naturally; use high-clay soil that you then compact to retain surface water much like a bowl; or use an aquatic-safe plastic liner. To determine whether you can rely on groundwater, dig a hole at least three feet deep and cover it with a board. If the hole is filled with water the next day, you’ll be able to build your wetland simply by expanding the hole into a wetland. If no water fills your test hole, take a handful of soil from underneath the topsoil and add water. Mix until it is a moist ball, then use your thumb and index finger to squeeze out a thin ribbon of soil. If you succeed in making a 2-inch ribbon, then you can compact the clay, which will make the soil impervious and enable it to fill when the next rains come. If the soil breaks before 2 inches in length, it does not have enough clay for it to hold water and you’ll need to use a plastic liner. Spreading clean wheat straw and planting native plants around the edge of the new wetland will prevent erosion and help exclude invasive species. Before you start digging, however, check with the local municipality to see if any permits are needed and check for buried utilities. Visit savethefrogs.com for more info.
If you build it, they will come, Kiger says. And that means you can do some frog spotting right in your own backyard, all while you’re planning your trip to Costa Rica.
Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 24 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against domestic and wild animals.