Chorusing

Chorusing

We’ve been back in Oregon for over 20 years, and I still love chorus frogs. Most years they begin calling in earnest after the first warm rains of late January or early February, an audible reminder that another winter is finally passing. This year has been unusually mild, and the frogs have been trilling around Mom and Dad’s farm pond since mid-December. The males are to blame for that divine racket. They have more endurance than a prize bull, calling night after night well into May or for as long as they have the spunk to keep it up. In the world of chorus frogs the longer a male can carry on calling, the more mates he is likely to acquire, and more offspring is the ticket to success in the Darwinian casino. This year the frogs are working overtime, and I sometimes feel a little sorry for them.

I love the phone calls that come in summer. Distraught people want to rescue tadpoles from drying ditches and puddles and horse tracks and cast off tires and every other thing that once held even a little water during the late winter rains. Chorus frogs are amazingly resourceful in utilizing temporary water for breeding. They get away with this by having a larval period that is short and supple. Warming water, disappearing food, and crowding—all symptoms of a drying pond—tell them that it’s time to get out of Dodge and can trigger metamorphosis. However, there are limits to this flexibility, and breeding pairs often deposit eggs in water that is too transient to carry the tadpoles through to terrestrial freedom. There is a cost to this mistake. The “sins of the fathers” (and mothers) really are visited on the offspring because every summer tadpoles die by the millions. But this also reduces the number of poor-decision-making genes. I explain this as gently as I can to would-be chorus frog rescuers and then advise them to grab a bucket and move the tads to the nearest permanent water. I’m such a sucker.

I love chorus frogs because they are able get along with us, despite our ecocidic tendencies. They readily adopt human-made bodies of water for breeding and for the rest of the year manage to survive in the remnants of terrestrial refugia available to them. Piles of debris in the west Eugene wetlands seem to work, and late last fall a lone male called from the green wall of laurel in my backyard, perhaps warming up for a virtuoso performance in January. Yet our presence has certainly extracted a high cost. Every spring, the horsetails that sprout in my front garden remind me that not very long ago, before the time of concrete and asphalt suburbs, Amazon Creek meandered freely among the willows and cottonwoods across this small valley. Closing my eyes I imagine the throbbing pandemonium of late winter, when thousands of male frogs made their way down from forested hills to spend their spring vying for mates in once vast wetlands. I wonder whether it is psychologically healthy to identify so intensely with our place that we no longer love where we are so much as we become it. Such powerful identification in a time of rapid ecological change leaves a person extremely vulnerable to a sense of loss.

This piece first appeared in Nature Trails, the monthly publication of the Eugene Natural History Society.

©Tom A. Titus