Around this time of year, I always start thinking about frogs. In fact, I think about frogs more often than I see them. While I still hear the evening choruses of frogs near swampy areas, it is unusual to encounter one hopping about. This wasn’t always so.
Growing up in Duluth in the ‘60s and ‘70s, frogs were a common source of entertainment for young boys. Especially abundant were wood frogs and northern leopard frogs, both of which inhabited all the wet spots in our neighborhood. As I recall, we found wood frogs in the early part of summer and leopard frogs later on. Occasionally, we’d happen upon an American toad, which we generally left alone due to a boyhood myth about contracting warts if you touched one.
Catching wood frogs was an enterprise that could easily consume an entire summer morning, when we’d find them in wet grass. What we did with the frogs ranged from keeping them in a bucket to the sort of sadism most boys hopefully outgrow by age 12. Let’s just say when we fed wood frogs to Speedy, the painted turtle I kept in a washtub one summer, the entertainment provided me and my young friends wasn’t so different from the ancient Romans feeding Christians to the lions. No doubt this is why wise parents usually convinced us just to let the frogs go.
Leopard frogs were larger and harder to catch. While it wasn’t uncommon to find one hopping across the backyard or in some other place far from water, they were most numerous at ponds, especially the ones where we fished for brook trout. One day when the brookies weren’t biting, we discovered that if you dangled a trout fly near a leopard frog perched on a lily pad, it would leap up and capture it.
This discovery, coupled with curiosity, led to a mass capture of leopard frogs, along with a couple of bull frogs, to make a meal of frog legs. I recall bicycling home from the trout pond with better than a dozen freshly dead frogs strung from a forked stick. Once home, I painstakingly peeled the skin from the hindquarters of each frog. The resulting drumsticks were about as long as a toothpick and not much meatier. But Mom fried them up and I ate them for lunch. They weren’t bad. Fortunately for the frogs, the effort involved in skinning them was enough to deter me from future frog leg dinners.
Today I’m awestruck when I recall the sheer abundance of northern leopard frogs. In good habitat, such as weedy shallow shorelines, they were everywhere, hopping across your path to escape into the water. They were just something you expected to see anytime you were around water, so common that you just took them for granted.
Then they were gone. I don’t recall when northern leopard frogs disappeared from places I frequent, but it must have been around 1980. Apparently, a disease called red leg went through the population and nearly wiped them out. To my knowledge, the population never recovered its former abundance. It’s been years since I’ve seen a leopard frog, a wood frog or an American toad.
All amphibians seemed more numerous when I was a kid. That’s partly because kids are more in tune with small, catchable critters, but it’s not the only reason. The natural world isn’t as hospitable to frogs as it used to be. During the 1990s, we started hearing reports of deformed frogs found throughout Minnesota, something I don’t ever recall seeing as a kid. Scientists say the deformities may be a result of parasites, chemical contamination of the environment or ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Worldwide, biologists worry many amphibian species are near the brink of disaster, because they are especially susceptible to environmental degradation and have suffered alarming population declines. The abundance of frogs I remember from boyhood is unlikely to ever return.
But it isn’t just the frogs that are fading away. I remember when bees and similar insects were more numerous, too. As recently as a decade ago, I marveled at the number and variety of bees buzzing around the blooms in our flower gardens. That was before we started hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder, which led to the abrupt disappearance of honeybees across North America. In our gardens, bumblebees and other pollinators seemed to have declined as well.
Other backyard wildlife has either declined or is at risk of doing so. Recently, I read a story about purple martins, a once-common swallow I remember from boyhood. Back then, folks erected apartment-like martin houses in their yards, because the birds were voracious consumers of mosquitoes and other flying insects. Martins have been greatly reduced in numbers, though some bird-lovers are trying to bring them back.
Surely, there are enough mosquitoes to feed the martins and soon there may be more. Bats, which also eat flying insects, are on borrowed time, as a deadly fungus called white nose continues its westward march toward Minnesota. In states further east, outbreaks of the fungus have nearly eliminated many bat colonies. In the next few years, the same thing may happen here.
I don’t know where the bees have gone, any more than I know what really happened to the leopard frogs. Nor does anyone else. But I have learned this lesson from the frogs and the bees. We live in a world where nothing in Nature can be taken for granted, whether it’s bees in the backyard or shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. We have to appreciate what we have and protect what we can, because, like the old song says, you don’t know what you’ve got 'til its gone.
Airdate: July 2, 2010