Helping baby toads is their labor of love
As baby toad season winds down in the Roxborough area of Philadelphia, volunteers are still busy helping the frenetic little critters make it alive across Port Royal Avenue.
Ed Wickham likes to use a long, strong-spined turkey feather to brush the fragile, tiny toadlets, as they're called, into a cup, which he empties into a bucket and, later, carries across the street.
"Another volunteer"—Olympia Saint-Auguste—"came up with this idea for the feather," he said. "Some people use a leaf, or a spoon, or their fingers."
Fans of the common species of amphibian known as the Eastern American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) flock to this Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood early every spring to help creatures driven by ancient instinct overcome the potentially fatal obstacle posed by a busy city street:
Adult male and female toads that inhabit the woods surrounding the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education must cross busy Port Royal Avenue to get to their breeding ground in the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve.
About two months later, the tadpoles spawned in the reservoir's shallow waters have grown into fully formed toadlets. Less than a fingernail in length, the babies set off for drier ground on the other side of the avenue. Volunteers catch, collect, and release them into the wooded habitat surrounding the Schuylkill Center.
"We are trying to make sure the toads can reach the shallow water to lay their eggs [and give rise to] the next generation of toads," said Amy Krauss, the center's director of communications.
What has become an annual event involving 100 volunteers was organized by animal rights activist and former local resident Lisa Levinson in 2008 and has been overseen by the nonprofit center since 2011. Rescues were interrupted in 2020 by the pandemic; this year's effort to save the toadlets will end on June 30.
"On an average night we get maybe a thousand toadlets," said Wickham, 60, who lives in Norristown and began volunteering with the Roxborough rescues nine years ago. "I love seeing them migrate. I never get bored with it."
On a recent Tuesday evening about a dozen volunteers, including members of the Scouting Venture Crew program's Crew 426, in Ambler, scooped up toadlets on the reservoir side of the avenue.
"It's an awesome activity we can do together," said pharmaceutical research scientist Silveria Rodriguez, of Oreland, who brought along her children Aria, 9, and Damian, 18. They wore hats with clip-on LED flashlights.
"Toadlets are really tiny and hard to spot," said Christina Radley, 28, a Mount Airy resident and self-described full-time volunteer with several environment-related organizations.
"I'm really interested in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation," she said. "I love animals. I don't think toads are icky."
Teeny weeny toadlets may well have more eye appeal to more people than do adult toads. But it's the grown-ups and their mating rituals that have inspired volunteers to staff the barricades during temporary "Toad Detour" shutdowns of the avenue that made national headlines about "toads gone wild" and "toadside assistance in Philadelphia."
Given that Roxborough is very much a Philly neighborhood, the detours are not always met with acclaim.
"Some of the drivers—oh, boy," Wickham said. "Some will be real nice and say, 'Thanks for doing this.' But a really small number of people will say, 'Oh, come on, you're closing this road off for toads? You've got to be kidding me.'
"We're supposed to be nice, so I don't say anything. I don't want to start an argument," said Wickham. "One time a driver actually took a swing at a volunteer, but didn't hit him.'"
Even those who follow the detour without incident might wonder what, exactly, is at stake. Is Philadelphia running out of toads? Are Eastern American toads an endangered species?
The answer is no and no. But Wickham, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that toads "are special, because we don't have as many of them in the city as there are out in the country, and they are very useful to the environment.
"We have invasive earthworms at the center, and toads eat them," he said. "Their tadpoles eat the algae in the reservoir. We also have mosquitoes in Philadelphia, and toads eat mosquitoes."
Might toads also eat, say, spotted lantern flies? Emerald ash-borers? Cicadas?
Pointing out that he isn't a herpetologist, Wickham said, "Adult toads are carnivores. If they can catch it and it fits in their mouth, they can eat it.",
"Toads have a right to exist and if we can help out, we should," she said. "It's called mercy, and this is a way to put mercy into action."
The project also gives volunteers a chance to observe key events in the life cycle of modern amphibians whose family tree in North America goes back more than 200 million years.
And it's no easy life cycle, either. "The adults come out of the woods, cross the road, dodge the cars, and have to climb the slope to the reservoir to mate and lay their eggs," said Krauss, adding that the toadlets make a similar journey, except in reverse.
No wonder, then, that toads—sometimes regarded as poisonous (if only to predators who eat them), as a source of human warts (fake news, for centuries), and as 'witches familiars,' or partners in evil magic—nevertheless can inspire affection and even devotion.
Nancy Block, a registered nurse who lives in Chestnut Hill, and her son, Jonathan, a rising junior at Columbia University, are veteran toad project volunteers.
"In April, Jon called me from New York to tell me, 'I saw on Facebook that they're helping the toads cross. Can you take my place?'" said his mother. "I got here right before dusk and saved four!"
Mike Holmquist, a civil engineer from Fort Washington, and his son Lucas, a rising senior at Upper Dublin High School, were first-time volunteers. Both also are members of Venture Crew 426.
"I've gotten about 10 toadlets so far," Mike said. "We're trying to protect the animals [that society] endangered by putting a road through here."
Lucas had three toadlets carefully cupped in his hands. "It helps me to know I'm helping these guys out," he said.
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