The birds, bees, frogs, and eels

The spring peeper, now prevalent in the adjacent pond, is the smallest of a dozen or so frogs and toads resident in our state of Maine. She is seldom seen, but everybody has heard her. Were she as big as her voice, she'd be huger'n a moose.

She is the size of my thumbnail, and her vernal peep is her cry for help in matrimonial matters that concern only male peepers, who are peepless in the gloaming but are poised to attend once they are invited. The marking of a cross on the spring peeper's back gives the wee beast its scientific name of Hyla crucifer.

And we have one other Hyla among native frogs, which is a bit bigger and sits on apple tree limbs and trills, the Hyla versicolor. All amphibians breed in water, although they come ashore later.

The spring peeper is amphibian and - except in concert and mating season - is hard to find o'er hill and dale. They like to hide in damp, remote places, and do not peep once the connubial season has passed.

If you remember railroad trains, you may recall that in the spring of the year a train going at century speed could pass a pond in the night and the chorus of yearning peepers could be heard above the noise of the train by passengers in the coaches. The only known cry that exceeds the penetrating peeper's is that of a Scottish bagpipe band on Orangemen's Day in Winnipeg.

Peepers can be caught for close inspection but are quick and usually jump before your hand arrives. Hold your hand high, your forearm upright. Grab with a descending hand; it's more effective than a sideswipe.

When the children were little, I fixed terrariums for them to take to school. In late afternoon we'd go to the pond and fit wet moss and cattails into a preserving jar, and have a cheesecloth cover ready to go on. We'd see many peepers along the edge of the water and choose one to go to school tomorrow. I'd let the youngster grab and miss, and then show how to grab and hang on, and we'd install the lucky peeper in her bottle.

That evening, she would peep in her bottle on the mantle, and next morning off to school she'd go, still yearning enough to peep now and then for the scholars. Our farm-grown children found it difficult to explain submarine matrimony to the village youngsters and at least once to a teacher, who wrote us a note deploring the fiddle-faddle we'd told our children about frogs.

The fiddle-faddle I'd passed along came to me from Robert H. McCauley, a Cornell-taught herpetologist who carried a pet mink frog in his shirt pocket and was reliable enough to be quoted now. Bob told me one time that if snakes could sing they'd put Audubon out of business in 10 minutes. Songbird fanciers will hardly agree, but Bob merely meant he found reptiles more interesting than thrushes. Suum cuique. (To each his own.)

Bob put his knowledge to work and became No. 1 at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in Washington, D.C., so his words needn't be sneezed at. Bob also kept a falcon in a bushel basket nailed to the second floor of his house, and had a Gila monster in his cellar.

Another person like Bob whom I knew well and who helped make me smart was Dr. William Converse Kendall, the fish man. He was an M.D. but never practiced, and for years was director of the US Bureau of Fisheries in Washington. When he retired to his native Maine he had a small laboratory in Freeport. As a boy I'd step in to see what he was doing.

He was studying the biological process that allows a saltwater fish to come into fresh water to spawn. He said it was about like osmosis, only different, and extremely interesting. I told him he was probably correct. He told me never to clean smelts I caught but to bring them to him and he'd clean them for me.

He'd set aside a few scales and the viscera of each smelt and later look at them with his microscope to gather facts for the monograph he was working on. The monograph is still our best authority on the matter, and I was proud to be his assistant.

Dr. Kendall told me the American eel and the European eel are not alike, but both breed in adjacent and overlapping areas in the Sargasso Sea. Yet one comes here and one goes there, and neither ever goes to the wrong continent. How come? Very simple.

After a passive migration of three years, the American eel is ready for fresh water whereas the European eel needs seven years to reach that condition. Either will expire if he goes the wrong way.

I was young when he told this to me, but I realized it was a good thing to know. It would set me apart from the common crowd and prepare me to write for this newspaper, something I am happy to do on any subject.

Next week: How to make antique kerosene lamp chimneys from old ketchup bottles for the flea markets.

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