Henry David Thoreau referred to the mating call of the American Toad as “the dream of the toad.” In his diary entry of October 26, 1853, he remembers back to spring and the day he first heard those magical sounds:
“I was going home to dinner, past a shallow pool, which was green with spring grass, and where a new house was about being erected, when it occurred to me that I heard the dream of the toad. It rang through and filled the air, though I had not heard it once. And I turned my companion’s attention to it, but he did not appear to perceive it as a new sound in the air. Loud and prevailing as it is, most men do not notice it at all. That afternoon the dream of the toads rang through the elms by Little River and affected the thoughts of men, though they were not conscious they heard it. How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we are made, clear!”
The song of the male is a long, melodic trill sometimes lasting thirty seconds or more. It is especially beautiful when heard at a distance. Each male in a chorus sings at a slightly different pitch. Songs in a chorus come and go and overlap one another to produce a dreamy, musical effect that is quite pleasing to the ear. As Thoreau so elegantly points out, one must listen carefully in order to hear the distant and often subtle dreams of the toads when they fill the air.
American Toads are found throughout much of the East (see range map) and breeding occurs after warm spring rains. When breeding is at its peak, excited males will grab almost anything that moves, in hopes of snagging a female. Wiggle your finger in front of one, and he will immediately clasp it with his forelegs. If a male grabs another male, the unfortunate victim will struggle to get to free, making squeaking “release calls” and vibrating his midsection, as if to say “let go of me, you idiot!” (see below for a recording of release calls).
Finally, when a receptive female approaches, the male will climb on top of her and clasp her tightly, his forelegs just behind hers—the classic frog and toad mating position called “amplexus.” The female, who is gravid (full of eggs), is usually much larger than the male. She then swims to an area in shallow water where she lays long strings of eggs, the male fertilizing them as they emerge from her cloaca. When egg-laying is done, the male releases his hold and returns to the chorus where he will continue singing in hopes of attracting another female.
The American Toad is an “explosive breeder,” meaning that breeding erupts quickly when the weather conditions are right—after warm spring rains—and may be over within a few days. This depends on the weather, of course, and breeding may be extended if conditions remain marginal over long periods.
What follows is a recording of a single trill followed by the squeaky release calls of a male that has been mounted by another male:
American Toad trill followed by squeaky release calls of a male mounted by another male. Recorded by Lang Elliott in upstate New York.