The Peepers of Spring

The winters here on the Currant Farm have been getting warmer and later. Substantial snowstorms, once common and expected, have become a disappointing few. If we get 2 during the winter, we’re lucky. This year, the ground never froze and in years gone by, freezing down to 3 feet was not unheard of. All of this means the schedules of plants’ budding and blooming, migrating birds, ticks and insects, the Currant Farm honey bees, hibernating animals and virtually everything else in nature is out of kilter. The early warmth causes plants to leaf out and bloom earlier and become vulnerable to late frosts. The early warm days provoke the honey bees and other pollinators to become very active before the red maples and pussy willows produce spring’s first pollen. Pollen, which is the source of protein for bees, prompts the queen to begin laying eggs for the season’s brood. The spirited bees, eager to greet the warmth of the early spring and try to find pollen for the queen, use up what’s left of their winter stores at a much more rapid rate to fuel their early activity and run the risk of starvation before the natural pollen and nectar are available. Absolutely everything in nature is connected to and affected by the complex and myriad web of everything else. As a farmer and a naturalist, I have a front row seat to these changes in cycles.
While on slightly different schedules, the usual harbingers of spring still announce the glorious time of rebirth. The Red-winged blackbirds showed up about 2 weeks early this year. The Currants began budding about 8 days before normal. Emerging 10 days early, one of my favorite foretokens, the Spring Peepers, began heralding the season with their evening chorus. Here on the farm few things inaugurate the arrival of spring more than the chirps, warbles and tweets of the male Spring Peepers. On the first warm even fall their calls drift up to the farmhouse from the marsh in the middle of bulls’ field a quarter mile away. As I sit in the old rocker on the porch savoring the mild evenings, I sometimes hear Macbeth and Macduff accompany the frogs with sustained, tenor lowings that would impress Pavarotti. I can imagine the Metropolitan Opera nodding in reverence at this pastoral performance.
The purpose of this production, like most other events this time of year, is all about procreation of the species. The males are explosively competing with one another releasing what each one most likely believes is the most captivating song which will attract the most perfect female and by and large, each one of them is right. Every male ends up with the perfect female for him.
Like all tree frogs, their toe pads are sticky and round equipping them with exquisite design for climbing and clinging to the slippery tree bark of their home in the bog so that their ballads can be heard by every candidate for up to 2 miles away. This affair each spring has captured the imagination of many who’ve been touched by it. Over the years, some have described the chorale as reminiscent of sleigh bells giving the peepers fanciful nicknames such as pinkletinks. I remember my father, who hailed from Nova Scotia, once referring to them as tinkletoes. Their Latin name is Pseudacris crucifer. Pseudacris meaning “false locust” because their call can sound like crickets and crucifer because there is a distinct black cross on the back of their brown, gray, or green bodies. Like some other amphibians, they can adjust their color or shade at will to match their surroundings. Their beautiful, poetic anatomy also flaunts elegant, dark bands on their legs and a dramatic, brunet streak between their eyes.
Most of their performance and the resulting breeding occurs a few hours after daylight and again just before dawn. After breeding, each female can lay up to 1,000 eggs in the water which she attaches to sticks or beneath floating vegetation. These large numbers insure that, of the many eggs that become food for a multitude of hungry predators, a few will survive. The eggs hatch into tadpoles which have a tail and breath with gills underwater. Then, miraculously, they evolve into a proper frog with lungs and no tail all within 8 weeks. The frogs then leave their watery nursery to spend the rest of the summer dwelling in the woods devouring insects. By the beginning of autumn, they’ve become adults which can then live up to 3 years.
These amazing creatures have been thriving on this planet for 100 million years which is just about 99 million years longer than we 2 legged critters. One of the many marvels of these little organisms is that, in preparation for the frozen conditions of winter, they produce glucose, a form of sugar, in the late autumn which acts as a natural antifreeze. During the three dog nights of winter, their bodies actually freeze, their heart stops beating, their kidneys stop functioning and breathing completely ceases. They remain in this state of suspended animation for the duration of the winter months hibernating under old logs or behind loose bark. When at last they feel the first warm rays of the life-giving spring sun, as winter takes her leave, they thaw out, hearts begin to beat and they take their first breath in months to begin the cycle of joyous song on their journey to the next 100 million years.
Cheers from the Currant Farm,