Smallest Songster of Springtime

Ere yet the earliest warbler wakes, of coming spring to tell,
From every marsh a chorus breaks, a choir invisible,
As if the blossoms underground a breath of utterance had found.
–Tabb


One night, when the weather was astonishingly warm for March, I went out with my new friend Judy to listen to the Spring Peepers. We drove to Hurley, parked by the side of the road, and walked into a wet field. At first, we walked through grasses and weeds, then, pushed our way through brambles until the brush was higher than our heads and the ground was criss-crossed with tiny rivulets. Faintly, in the distance, we could hear the ugly whooshing of tires on pavement, but in the shrubs all around us an ancient song rose loud and glorious. It was a chorus of clear, musical ascending whistles in a complex interaction of calls and answers, produced by the tiny tree frogs known as Spring Peepers.
Tree frogs are not true frogs, but are closely related to toads. They are placed in their own family known as Hylidae. The Spring Peeper, Hyla Crucifer, is such a dainty, charming creature, only three-fourths of an inch to one and one-fourth inches in length. It is light brown or gray, and carries a dark, diagonal Greek cross (St. Andrew's cross) on its back. It has dark stripes on its long hind legs.
The Peeper has an amazing ability. Within a half-hour, it can change its skin color to match its surroundings! The dark lines that form the cross on its back change to blotches which give a mottled effect and provide excellent camouflage. The Peeper sleeps during the day, and is very hard to spot clinging to the bark of a tree with its specially adapted toes. Each toe-tip has an adhesive disc by means of which the Peeper can climb up slippery vertical surfaces -- even the sides of a glass terrarium!
All tree frogs are carnivores. The Peepers dine primarily on small spiders or insects. Their tongues are fastened at the front of their mouths, not at the back as ours are. They can "shoot out" their tongues to catch insects, and will even jump in the air to snatch their prey. They can jump a distance over seventeen times their body length! When they swallow, they blink, which presses their bulging eyes downward and helps push the food down from mouth to stomach.
The surprisingly loud song of the tiny Peeper is produced by courting males. They enormously inflate their vocal sacs with air. When the sacs are filled with air, they become sounding boxes for the noises produced by the vocal cords. Some people think that Spring Peepers heard at a distance sound like sleigh bells!
The females lay eight hundred to one thousand eggs, each in its own globule of jelly and affixed singly to stems and stones in the water; the male then fertilizes them. The tiny tadpoles are a metallic reddish color. It takes about three months for them to develop into "froglets." Curiously, they leave the water while they still have their tails! By fall, the little Peepers have eaten a great deal and stored food in their bodies anticipating hibernation. Sometime in November, when the weather becomes truly cold, they hibernate -- beneath moss, leaves, loose bark, or perhaps, under a log.
Spring Peepers are found in woods surrounding ponds and swamps, ranging from South East Canada southward to Central Florida, and westward to Texas.
There has been a world-wide decline in the populations of certain amphibia. There are several reasons for this; a major one being the destruction of wetlands which are their breeding grounds. Automobiles take a huge toll of the tiny creatures hopping across the rain-wet roads at night. Those that avoid being crushed may meet concrete road dividers that prevent migration to their ancestral ponds. Some scientists suggest that the damaged ozone layer in the upper atmosphere allows through too much harmful ultraviolet B light that strikes and harms the eggs. It is certainly true that amphibians absorb gases and chemicals easily through their skins, and the absence of these animals in a wetlands is a good indicator that pollution is present. Let us hope that our wonderful Peepers, harbingers of spring like the Robins and Bluebirds, will always remain plentiful in our region!


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