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A toad with canine companions

The deep Texas drought creates a new ecosystem, and some new lifelines.

By Laurie Marshall / October 5, 2011

The writer’s toad sits in its short-term home.

Laurie Marshall

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My home state, Texas, is currently experiencing its worst drought and hottest weather on record. I am an environmentalist who lives in a semirural area and doesn't believe in groomed lawns.

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The Saint Augustine grass under my oak trees died from lack of water last year, but my hardy coastal Bermuda grass is hanging in. And because I do not want my trees or perennials to die, I've been watering intermittently with soaker hoses and a sprinkler.

Since my yard is the only bit of green in the landscape, wildlife have been frequenting it, much to the excitement of my three dogs. In the 11 years I've lived here, I have seen maybe two snakes until recently, other than the baby snakes my cat used to catch.

A couple of weekends ago, the dogs were barking insanely so I went outside to investigate. They were barking at the base of the heat pump. I caught a glimpse of a tail. When I got close enough to see, it was obvious it belonged to a good-sized snake and had shades of pale copper with a nice diamond sort of pattern – definitely not a garter snake.

I grabbed my dogs and took them inside. I went back outside to determine the viperness of the snake and was a little alarmed to decide, yes, here is a viper. With dismay, I noted that the air conditioner's overflow pipe let out right by the unit, which is probably what had attracted the snake. A few minutes later there was no sign of the snake.

Last week, I had just let the dogs out and was moving the hoses when again I heard barking, but this time the dogs were at the fence by the gate. There is a narrow garden between the driveway and the fence, which has a good layer of oak leaves from last year that haven't decayed because there's no moisture. Again, a snake. I couldn't see its head because it was halfway through the fence under the leaves, but its body was thick and gray – cottonmouth was my thought. I pulled back the dogs and it escaped into the garden under the leaves. That was a little nerve-racking – two different probably poisonous snakes in less than two weeks.

The dogs were still interested in the spot where the snake had disappeared, so I went over to investigate again and discovered a toad – my toad (the toad my dogs have been sharing their water dish with for years) – just on the other side of the fence with a puncture wound on his body. I hesitated to reach through the chain-link fence to get the toad, thinking the viper might be on the other side. The toad decided he would rather take his chances with the dogs and me than the snake, so he obligingly hopped through the fence. I picked him up, rinsed him off with the hose, and took him inside.

I had my doubts as to whether the toad would survive the day, so I put him in a large plastic bowl with the lid loosely taped and left him on the kitchen table while I went to work. I read up on the care and feeding of American toads – they eat just about anything they can fit in their mouth that moves.

I came back at lunchtime and the toad was still alive. I went outside to forage for toad food and couldn't find a single roly-poly bug, the ubiquitous tiny crustacean that decomposes leaves and organic matter. I looked in all the likely places and realized that it's too dry – no grasshoppers and no crickets either. But I did manage to find a single grub underneath a brick. I took it in the house and put it in the bowl with the toad.

When I returned after work, the grub was gone. So, I created a toad habitat. I liberated a large, semiclear plastic storage bin from its contents and spread some organic potting soil in the bottom. I added a pool, some river rocks, a couple of small potted ferns, some moss from my orchids, and some oak leaves.

My housemate, Ajeesh, on seeing the toad said, "I know that guy!" Ajeesh, like the toad, is rather nocturnal. Apparently the toad has more friends than just me.

Once settled in, the toad dug a hole under the oak leaves and that's where he spends his daylight hours – a very effective camouflage job. Six days later he seems pretty happy. He's full of crickets and mealy worms from the pet store. The temperature is a pleasant 80 degrees F. I'll wait and hope for rain so I can release him safely back into the garden.

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