€œLook, here’s Fezzika, € my mother said, bending down to point out the Woodhouse toad tucked under the garden stone. We had discovered the amphibian’s house a few days earlier, and I was fascinated by the placement choice. She had dug into the soil under a cornerstone edging the flowerbed beside the main path through the garden. The stone is flat, shaped a little like a boomerang, wide and bent in the middle, providing a convenient entrance and shelter.
The first one or two years we lived here we simply dug plots of soil to plant our garden in and sometimes hired someone to till up an area we chose. But the second time we tilled, my mother discovered two toads that the tiller blades killed. One had missing limbs and made it as far as the surface of the tilled soil before dying. It was heartbreaking that these benign creatures had been injured in our yard where we tried to protect and encourage toads and other creatures.
My mother decided to try things a different way. We went up to a nearby gravel pit and gathered rocks from there, transporting them to our yard. Using these stones we built raised beds to plant our garden in, making an almost-grid around the new flowerbed and then shoveling soil into the beds, mixing manure and compost in as well. With this new approach to the garden, we had no need to till the plot.
Soon after that, toads readily swarmed to the garden, coming out of secret holes at night and hopping through water puddles that the sprinkler left. They squatted in the plastic container of water my mother placed at the south end of the garden, a little €œtoad spa €. Some nights, there would be two or three toads soaking in the water at a time. When any of the family walked through the garden at night, we had to be careful that we didn’t step on a toad sitting in the path. Oftentimes I went barefoot, partly so that I would feel more easily if I disturbed an amphibian.
Over the six years we’ve lived here, the behavior of the toads in our garden has changed. They accept our garden as an ideal environment, traveling to stop at our water puddles, foraging in our area, burrowing under the black plastic and wandering around the garden. What my mother did not expect was that the toads would begin making permanent homes under the stones of the garden bed. This year, when my mother was in the garden, she realized that one of them €”Fezzika €”had dug a homey burrow to live in. This toad is an especially large female Woodhouse toad, as jumpy as any other when we walk around. My mother decided that we could name her €œFezzika € in honor of the giant in The Princess Bride because the toad is so large.
She wasn’t the only toad who moved in. Not long after we found Fezzika, we discovered that another toad had similarly excavated a spot under another flat stone in the herb bed. Slightly smaller than Fezzika, it had dug a sideways tunnel against the rock only a few inches away from our lemon thyme. It also seems that some of the toad homes are community burrows. A couple years ago, there was a gopher hole under one of our peach trees. Not only one toad lived in here. There were one or two others, and even a tiger salamander that shared the burrow with them.
Before Fezzika had moved in, the toads had generally only dug into the softer soil of the garden, first in the tilled soil of the old plots, then into the shovel-turned soil in the raised beds. They sometimes hibernated in the beds, and they liked moving in and out from beneath the black weed barrier. We would often find holes in the beds where one had spent the day in a burrow. Our garden was clearly a good environment for them, with plenty of water and insects to support their diet. The only slight downturn was that our cats prowled the garden and sometimes batted at them, but our felines usually left the toads to themselves. They certainly never ate them.
One reason the cats leave the toads alone (besides our chastisement) is that toads produce a gland toxin called bufotalin. This toxin is stored in large sacs slightly behind the Woodhouse toad’s eyes. It’s a milky substance that, if it enters the bloodstream, can cause increased heart rate or other heart problems because it has effects like digitalis, or Foxglove. It also has a distinctly bad taste.
Female Woodhouse toads are generally bigger than the males, and they can be as long as four inches. Once, when I was at a pond with some friends and we were catching toads, I caught a large brown toad that was possibly a Woodhouse. It had the characteristic light dorsal stripe but was a brown color, something I had never seen in Woodhouse toads before.
Just down the street from us is a large pond formed by runoff from the irrigation sprinklers in the alfalfa field above. From March to July, we can hear the male Woodhouse toads in the pond. The males emit a long, wailing call that can be compared to a sheep with a serious cold. The males use these calls to attract the females to ideal breeding waters.
Woodhouse toads deposit long strings of eggs numbering from twenty to forty eggs per strand in relatively still waters. Once these hatch, the tadpoles feed on debris in the pond, gradually maturing as they grow legs, lose their tails, and finally become tiny toads, no bigger than the nail of my little finger. From there, it takes three years for the toad to fully mature into the sizes of those amphibians now inhabiting our garden.
Unlike frogs, toads have a thicker skin that they can absorb water through. When the toads sat in the plastic container of water during the night it was to have a drink through their skin. Once they mature from tadpoles, the toads can wander as long as they like, being sure to stop at puddles and ponds to stay hydrated.
Now that the toads have come as far as digging rock-roofed homes in the garden, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll leave. My mother hopes that sometime we’ll be able to build a pond of our own, a little piece somewhere in the backyard that will encourage the toads even further. They’ve become year-round neighbors for us and interesting creatures to study. Toads eat a large assortment of insects in our garden, everything from flies to slugs, when slugs appear. Their presence is a welcome addition to the garden ecosystem.
Val K. is thirteen years old and lives in a house in the Utah desert with her family, her carnivorous plants, a dog, five cats, and several toads. In between the times she spends writing, she works on crafts involving building, embroidery, gardening and more and also takes time to read incredibly long epic novels. She spends what is left of her free time writing fantasy stories and has a book written and a sequel in the works.