Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Biological Warfare

©1994 Melissa Kaplan, News from the North Bay, September/October 1994


Summer is gone, fall is crunching its way through the calendar, Halloween and Thanksgiving are just around the corner, with the new year not far behind. If your summer went anything like mine, you did not accomplish much of what you had planned. And now that school has started again, my "To Do" and "To Write" lists have become buried under syllabuses, drifts of notes and drafts of papers. (And to think I'm doing this voluntarily.!)

The sun is still shining, however, and enough stuff is still in the air that, in many parts of the country, allergies are still making lives miserable. There is no denying that the days are getting shorter, however, and if you have a yard this means that there is not much time left to work on it.

As keepers of herps, we all know how sensitive our charges are to the presence of toxic chemicals. Amphibians, with their permeable skin, are even more susceptible to toxic poisoning than are most reptiles. If you have a neighborhood full of kids, like me you find yourself frequently thanking them for their offers to collect bugs and dandelions from yards and parking strips, gently explaining about dry deposits, pesticides and other chemicals which may be on (or in) their offerings.

More and more, people are keeping organic gardens, working to reduce the chemical load they feed to their families. Of course, they also find themselves feeding the local invertebrate populations as well. Folks who do not have gardens, but who do have the usual assortment of trees and foundation plantings and whatnot put in by previous owners and tenants often think nothing of dosing their roses with systemic pesticides, flower beds with Snarol and using a variety of pesticides and herbicides in the endless attempt to keep the pests out of their plants and their grass green.

Well, just as a weed is a plant that you don't want where it is, bug pests can be looked at in a different way. Rather than thinking about them as pests, things against which to commit active chemical warfare, think about them as being breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snacks. No, I am not advocating adding toasted beetles to your salads (though I understand that chocolate-covered crickets are rather reminiscent of Nestle Crunch® bars). I am advocating amphibians - especially toads.

Earwigs in your roses? Not a problem! "A single toad might eat up to 1,500 earwigs in a summer," says Robert Johnson, curator of amphibians and reptiles at Canada's Metro Toronto Zoo. Uhm, how, you might ask, did he arrive at that number? By counting earwig heads in toad feces, of course (and people accuse me of having too much time on my hands!). Japanese beetles, June bugs, slugs, cutworms, ants, potato beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, various other worms, even gypsy moths and fruit tree pest. In 1904, Boston entomologist A. H. Kirkland estimated that a single toad was worth $19.44 in 1904 dollars (that would easily be $200-300 today) based on its consumption of cutworms alone.

Toads are not the only hard workers that can be attracted to your yards and gardens. If you have or can provide a year-round body of water, frogs will be sure to follow. Have some undisturbed snags and fields on your property? Then you are likely to find salamanders (rattlesnakes, too, but that's another story).

If you want to attract nature's little eating machines to your yard and garden, there are a few things you can do to make things more attractive to them: provide a shady place (preferably slightly damp), access to water, and absolutely no pesticides. These nocturnal animals need somewhere to hide out during the drying heat of the day. Mulch, such as old hay, straw, and grass clippings provides material to burrow under. Bushy plants are also sanctuaries, the dense ground-sweeping foliage providing the perfect cover and cool, damp conditions they require. Some nurseries sell little toad houses but you can make your own by using broken clay flower pots. Create some rocky hollows by affixing rocks over a toad-sized depression in the ground, or place a pile of damp windfall in back of some of your flower beds or at one end of your garden. Climate permitting, plant a small grove of ferns.

Needless to say, gardens and yards can be the perfect place for reptiles, too. A variety of small lizards sunning themselves on a conveniently placed rock or wall help keep down some of the pests, while, terrestrial garter and sharp-tailed snakes will cheerfully consume your slugs (assuming your turtles don't get them first). Gopher, corn, king and other colubrid snakes all lend their efforts in keeping the vertebrate population at bay.

So, what happens if you set it all up and you don't see any frogs or toads? Don't go shopping for some at your nearest pet store! The species found in the pet stores are generally not native to your area, and you will either succeed in killing them, killing the population you do have but just haven't seen yet, or you will introduce a pest that may wipe out native species. Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana), introduced to the Western U.S. in the 1800s, have succeeded in decimating native amphibian populations. The highly toxic marine toad (Bufo marinus, also called cane toads and, for reasons which were apparent in the news several months ago, licking toads) has become a pest in every state and country in which it has been introduced. If you live near open fields, creeks or streams, you might try transplanting some amphibious life if you find them in the same type of environment you are providing in your yard. If you give it enough time, however, and let Mother Nature take her own sweet course, you will find yourself with a naturally controlled, and healthful, environment.

If you would like to find out more about creating a backyard habitat (or schoolyard habitat), contact the National Wildlife Federation or the Home Habitat Society (POB 412, Taneytown MD 21787) and request information on creating habitats.

Check out the California Department of Fish & Game website for current lists of protected native California herp species.


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