pond It’s been raining, and our arthritic rescue dog Chelsea is feeling the weather. Usually the after-dinner walk is a brisk, one-mile constitutional, but this evening Chelsea makes clear she wants to meander down by the pond, so off we go, equipped with flashlight and leash. The latter is solely to restrain possible “Devil made me do it” charges into the already duckweed-covered South pond – she is a water dog, after all.

The spring peepers are in full chorus tonight, and as we edge through the forest the noise is deafening. These frogs are less than an inch long, and so well camouflaged you can barely see them in full daylight, but their voices can be heard up to a mile away. Each peep is an enormous effort, as the male frogs swell their lungs with air and expel it with the power and urgency of life and death. Each male’s ability to attract a mate depends on making his voice heard among the din, and female peepers prefer the males with loud and long songs. The mating song lasts only through May and June up in these Northern latitudes, and the rest of the year is a solitary struggle of male and female adults to eat enough to make it through to winter. Then their fat-enlarged body surfaces and circulatory systems are suffused in just one day with self-made glucose and alcohol that will freeze their bodies as solid as rock but prevent hypothermia and serve as anti-freeze for their blood, as they hibernate under logs until the warming Spring sun signals it’s time to sing again.

The sex is long and spectacular, a traditional male-on-top coupling and external fertilization of thousands of eggs, that can last days. Then the exhausted adults rest and abandon the tadpoles to the most extreme version of Shirky’s Law : In captivity peepers can live a dozen years or more, but in the deadly, crowded pond only a tiny proportion of tadpoles will live long enough for their first coupling, and those that reach adulthood will live on average only two or three years. The life expectancy curve moves only grudgingly when the pond swells enough to create more room for living, so the frog density stays unchanged.

So the song we’re hearing is raucous, desperate and exuberant. This is hard rockin’, party hardy, devil-may-care, live-for-today music. The words of Neil Young’s Will to Love (actually a song about salmon running upstream) come to mind:

Sometimes I ramble on and on and repeat myself till all my friends are gone
Get lost in snow and drown in rain and never feel the same again.
I remember the ocean from where I came, just one of millions all the same
But somewhere someone calls my name, I’m a harpoon dodger, and I can’t, won’t be chained.
Babe if I see boredom in your eyes I’ll know my river has run dry
But I won’t turn back with that lonely tide, I bought that ticket and I’ll take that ride.
If we meet along the way, please sway beside me, let us sway together
Our tails together and our fins in line, we’ll leave this water and let our scales shine
In the sun above and the sky below, so all the water and earth will know

The peepers’ song has been going on for two hundred million years, sixty times longer than humans have been around to hear it. But frogs are very sensitive to changes in their environment, and have all but disappeared from many urban areas. The planned massive spraying of standing water this summer, to fight West Nile carrying mosquitos, could well end the ancient song forever.

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