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    Sunday, February 25, 2024

    Gray tree frogs: A face only another gray tree frog could love

    This gray tree frog has changed color to blend in with a weathered-wood railing support. (Photo by Lisa Brownell)

    Riiiiing … riiiiing … riiiing …

    “All right, I’m coming!” I exclaimed, racing for the phone. Yes, I do have a cellphone, but haven’t cut the cord on our landline.

    I grabbed the receiver just before the fourth ring, when the answering machine would kick in, but heard only a dial tone.

    Then: Riiiiing … riiiiing … riiiing …

    What the …?

    Riiiiing … riiiiing … riiiing … The sound was coming from just outside the screen door. I went to investigate.

    There, a lonesome gray tree frog perched on the deck, hoping someone other than a two-legged mammal would answer his call.

    If your home is in the woods, chances are you’ve heard the nonstop trills of these amorous, arboreal amphibians in the past week or two. This time of year, male frogs have only one thing in mind, and are even more persistent than telemarketers.

    Although their mating call may sound like a telephone to my ears, others hear something different.

    “People are always sending me a recording and asking, ‘What kind of bird is this?’” local wildlife expert Maggie Jones told me.

    Maggie, who has programmed her cellphone’s ringtone to mimic the plaintive call of a barred owl, and rattles off the names of every creature that flies, scampers or hops by whenever she joins friends and me on excursions into The Great Outdoors, frequently gets asked to identify flora and fauna. She said that most questions relate to gray tree frogs, which isn’t surprising, considering that they are so ubiquitous and have such a singular call.

    All male frogs sing to attract mates, Maggie said, noting that each species has a distinctive song – the duck-like quack of the northern wood frog, the watery snore of a pickerel frog, and the banjo-like note of a green frog.

    Choruses of northern wood frogs typically start in February, followed by spring peepers and toads in March, leopard and pickerel frogs in April, gray tree frogs in May, and finally, by green frogs and bullfrogs.

    “Gray tree frogs breed quickly and explosively when conditions are right, with temperatures in the 50s-60s, usually stimulated by thunderstorms and rain. Males migrate from woodlands and wait near their breeding pools for females to arrive,” she said.

    Other traits make gray tree frogs stand out. Sticky pads on their feet and long toes enable them to climb not just trees, but just about any surface. I’ve seen them perched on the steeply angled, metal roof of our house, the windshield of a parked car, fence posts, and even, on one occasion, a wall in our dining room. I have no idea how it got inside – maybe they can open doors.

    Gray tree frogs also produce glycerol that serves as a kind of antifreeze, allowing them to “freeze” during hibernation. In addition, their scientific name, Hyla versicolor, references an ability to alter skin color based on surroundings.

    Maggie said she thinks gray tree frogs are “cute,” which is not how I would describe a squat bug-eater with hooded eyes and mottled skin. The best I can say is they’re not as hideous as sea robins, a scaly, bottom-feeding fish with spiny fins that spread out like wings, and wiggly feelers that allow them to “walk” on the ocean floor. Naked mole rats also are nothing to write home about.

    Of course, it’s unfair to judge other species by appearance alone. For all I know, the one that showed up outside our door was the Brad Pitt of gray tree frogs.

    By now, I also don’t jump to answer the “phone.” If it turns out to be a real call, it can always go to voicemail.

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