American toad hungry for insect pests. Source: www.nps.gov
Toads don’t get no respect. They aren’t pretty—in fact, they’re downright ugly! —, they’re unobtrusive and tend to hide and they’re active mostly at night while we sleep. What’s there to appreciate?
Well, how about their voracious appetite for garden pests? Probably no other animal consumes as many noxious insects, slugs and other pests as a toad!
What is a Toad?
Toads are tailless amphibians, closely related to frogs. In fact, the distinction between the two is often derived more from common usage than scientific taxonomy. However, there is a family of “true toads” made up of some 500 species: the Bufonidae, native to pretty much everywhere on the planet except Australia, Antarctica and oceanic islands.
The most common toad in Europe is called—you guessed it!—the common toad or European toad (Bufo bufo), while North Americans have several species, from the American toad (Anaxyrus americanus, formerly Bufo americanus) in the East to the western toad (Anaxyrus boreas) in the West and several species in between.
They all have similar habits and shapes, varying mostly in size and coloration. Most noticeable is their bumpy skin, covered in “warts.” However, they aren’t true warts and no, you won’t get warts by handling toads. Their skin is dry (unlike the moist skin of their close relatives, the frogs).
Toads have squat bodies and short legs. Most species, but not all, hop like frogs, although they’re often seen walking instead of hopping. They tend to be brown, gray or green, and, what with their lumpy skin, look much like the soil around them: they’re camouflage experts.
Although toads have no teeth, they know how to defend themselves. Some puff up when attacked to look bigger. They also bear a larger “wart” called the parotoid gland on each side of the head just behind the eyes. It emits poisonous secretions called bufotoxins* when the toad is threatened and that helps it defend itself from predators. If you ever see a dog grab a toad in its mouth, it soon drops it! And if you handle a toad, no, you won’t be poisoned, but do wash your hands afterwards. The secretion is very bitter!
*The bufotoxins of temperate climate toads are more repulsive than dangerous, but some tropical toads can severely poison or even kill pets that swallow them.
American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) eating a slug. Source: youtube
Toads will eat almost any tiny creature in the garden. Spiders, millipedes, earthworms, slugs and all sorts of insects: earwigs, Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, etc. They’re indiscriminate eaters, consuming both harmful and beneficial creatures … but mostly the former. That’s because beneficial insects tend to active in the day, when toads are usually asleep. They feed mostly at night, when the insects on the move tend to be harmful ones. They eat almost nonstop from dusk to dawn. When you have toads in the garden, just watch the slug population drop!
Toads Like It Moist
Each spring, toads trek to nearby ponds to lay long strands of eggs. Each female can lay between 4,000 and 12,000 eggs! At that rate, you’d think the world would be overrun by toads, but toad eggs and their larvae, tadpoles, are a favorite food of many, many creatures. As a result, rarely do more than one or two of the eggs actually reach adulthood.
The eggs hatch in the water and the fishlike tadpoles grow quickly, metamorphosing into terrestrial toadlets only ¼ to ½ inch (6 to 12 mm) long, exact miniatures of the adult, in about two months … if their ponds doesn’t dry up first (unfortunately, a common occurrence).
After mating, the adults move back into fields, forests and gardens where the young will join them when they’re ready. They seek moist, dark places in which to spend the night, a fact you can use to draw them to your garden.
And you really do want toads in your garden*! Everything you can do to encourage them will make gardening easier!
*Unless you’re from Australia, where the introduced cane toad (Rhinella marina), the world’s largest toad (up to 9 inches/23 cm long!), has become a serious pest.
Unfortunately, humans seriously mistreat toads. We drain their ponds, we spray poisonous pesticides in toad habitat, we plow the fields where they hide, we run them over with our cars, we cut their forest homes and cover them with asphalt and lawns (toads can feed in lawns, but they can’t hide there), etc. There is no doubt humans are the toad’s worst enemy.
Fortunately, toads are nothing if not versatile and will come back if you give them a chance. Here are a few things you can do:
1. Add a pond to your yard. Unlike frogs that will live in a pond year round, toads mostly make use of ponds for the period of reproduction and early development, until young toads grow legs and become terrestrial in mid summer. Theoretically, the pond therefore only needs to be available and full of water at that time. Of course, most gardeners see the pond as an ornamental feature rather than just toad habitat and will want it to be attractive right through the summer well into fall, filling it with water lilies, water hyacinths and the like.
Make sure your pond has at least one gradually sloping side for easy toad egress. If not, put in a few partially submerged flat rocks near the edge so they can clamber out.
Ideally, the pond would be partly in the shade, partly in the sun, have a sandy bottom and have plentiful plant life, not only to shield the tadpoles from aerial predators, but because they feed on algae growing on plant stems.
Don’t add fish (they’ll eat the tadpoles!).
2. Don’t overclean your garden. Neat freaks don’t make good toad hosts. Toads need dead leaves and stems to hide under. And detritus hosts many of the animals they feed on. In fall, toads bury themselves deep in the ground, usually under dead leaves or logs, often in animal burrows, in order to hibernate for the winter. If you keep your garden spotless, where are they to go?
3. Offer them shelter for the night. You can put in a toad house. There are commercial ones, often a clay container with a toad-sized opening, but a simple clay pot jacked up on a few rocks will do just as well. (Clay is interesting as a toad habitat, because it tends to be cooler than the surrounding air, a bonus in hot weather.) Or build a little cave with rocks and partly cover it with dirt and dead leaves.
Always put your toad house in a cool, shady spot.
4. Install a toad night light. Bright artificial light attracts moths, crane flies, mayflies, beetles, and all sorts of other insects toads like to eat. And many of them are enemies of your garden, so both you and the toad will be happy with the results. The light has to be within about 3 ft (90 cm) of the ground, of course.
There are many little solar lamps on the market you could use.
5. Avoid using pesticides—insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc.—especially chemical ones. And reduce your use of even biological ones. Most are harmful to toads; some even deadly! If you have to treat a plant, use the least harmful pesticide possible (insecticidal soap, for example) and spray only that plant, not the entire area. Treat in the morning so the pesticide will have dried up by nightfall when toads come out.
6. Don’t handle toads. Sure, you can move a toad that’s gotten itself into a tight spot. And don’t hesitate to hold one to use as an example when teaching kids about toads. But excess handling is harmful, notably because we humans excrete oils from our pores that are harmful to amphibians. Toads, with their dry skin, are less susceptible than their wet-skinned cousins, the frogs, but still, the less handling, the better. And, if possible, wash your hands or put on gloves before picking one up.
Finally, many children find toads fascinating and are likely to bring them home and even want to keep them as pets. Gently discourage them and have them put them back where they found them.
Toads: they’re ugly as all get out, but they’re also incredibly helpful. I’m sure you’ll agree that the lumpy, bumpy creatures are the gardener’s BF!