“Oh, Spring! I want to go out and feel you and get inspiration.”
Signs of spring are showing up weekly in my wildlife garden. Bluebirds are nesting, the swallows have returned, bumblebees have awakened and the wildflowers are beginning to bloom like this bloodroot.
But the very special sign I look forward to happens one night in early spring when the temps stay above freezing for a period of time. A high pitched song suddenly fills the evening air. It’s the sound of the peepers. Once their song starts, I look forward to hearing this lullaby nightly through my open window.
The northern spring peeper or Pseudacris crucifer is a small chorus frog found throughout the eastern US and Canada. Peepers are found in wetlands, ponds, swamps and those wonderful ephemeral ponds caused by snow melt and spring rains that are right behind my garden in the protected area.
Peepers are so small (about an inch in length and .1-.2 oz), they are hard to see if you decide to go on a peeper hunt. Consequently, I had to borrow a few pictures for this post. Spring peepers are tan and/or brown with some olive and gray in color with a dark cross on their back (the Latin name crucifer, meaning cross-bearer). Females are lighter in color but the males are smaller in size. Peepers also have large toe pads for climbing up trees or along the forest floor.
The peeping of hundreds of male frogs (males only have the ability to make the peeping call to attract mates) all at once can create quite a racket, but to me it is a symphony of beautiful music heard up to a mile or two away. You can hear their nightly chorus from sometime in late March or early April until June when the pond chorus changes to the bass sound of the bull frogs and the trilling of the toads. You will also hear the peepers calling in the daytime as their mating time is short. Here in the north the peepers endure cold nights of freezing temps, as low as 20 degrees, during their mating season. Some of their body fluids will freeze and they will seek shelter under logs and loose bark.
One peeper usually lays around 1000 eggs hidden under vegetation or debris. Tadpoles feed primarily on algae and other organisms. They do have predators such as snakes, skunks, and larger frogs. Once they hatch they are ready to leave the water in 8 weeks. Peepers will hunt low in trees and vegetation day and night looking for beetles, ants, spiders and flies. Peepers can live for up to 3 years.
The spring peeper is quite common and widespread, but their habitats are shrinking due to loss of wetlands. In some areas, their populations have decreased quite a bit, and they are listed as threatened in Iowa and Kansas.
Folklore has it that peepers must freeze 3 times before spring is here to stay. Another piece of folklore is that when you hear the peepers song begin to sound in the night air, the following day the running sap in the maples is finished. A wonderful Great Lake Native Americans story goes like this:
When winter first came, the animals had to hibernate and they worried about who would wake them up on time for spring so they could raise their young. The animals decided that Bear, the mightiest creature in the woods, should give the wakeup call. But Bear oversleeps. Nobody wanted the responsibility; if Bear can’t do it, who can? Eventually, the peeper frogs volunteered. But they were mocked because of their small size for such an important job…and indeed they proved to be the best heralds of spring.
This year their song started on April 4th much to my glee. I heard their high pitched chorus through my closed window. When I realized it was the peepers, I immediately opened the window to drink in their lovely sound. Recently, I heard some very loud peeps right outside my window, and realized there were some peepers in our pond which is covered in algae. I continue to hear them, but have not seen any peepers or their eggs. But I will keep a close watch for them as these mighty voices continue nightly.
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