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What Killed My Frog?

Thursday, August 8, 2019


I hadn't gotten too attached to this frog; we'd just made friends, and it had just connected me with good things like mealworms. But it still was a punch to the gut when I saw it suspended, little fingers splayed, eyes hooded, halfway down in the 3' deep pond. I knew right away it was dead. I've seen that float before.

I didn't have my phone with me, and it seemed disrespectful to shoot a photo of the frog like that anyway, when it couldn't say no. Besides, I had to fish it out quickly and see if there was any life in it at all, because helping creatures is what I always try to do first.

Nope, it was stiff and still. Ahhh how sad. I noted immediately that it was very fresh. No bloating, no odor; eyes still perfectly clear. But why and how had it died? I'd fed it two Superworms on July 29. And this was August 4. Could they have chewed a hole somewhere in its gut and killed it slowly, by  infection of peritonitis? Seemed unlikely. But then again...maybe the timing was right for a death that. Being the Science Chimp, and easily consumed by guilt, I had to know if I'd had an inadvertent hand in the frog's death.

I'm gonna ease you into this now with a little dissertation on the frog's tongue. From here, it gets more graphic, but it isn't gross. It's interesting. The more sensitive among you might want to stop here. You've been alerted. 

I opened the frog's mouth, to see if it might have choked on something, and was arrested by its amazing tongue. I'd seen that tongue deployed as it swiftly unfurled and blapped onto the mealworms I'd tossed. But I never realized that it is actually turned back on itself, and its side flaps are folded under, as it rests in the frog's mouth.

Freaking fabulous!! I thought about the extra velocity that sticky tongue would have as it snapped out and simultaneously unfolded. Fwab-adap!

It's like the distal half of a heron's neck, which, when it strikes, whips out from a sort of hinge halfway up the neck. That hinge is the "kink" in the neck that we notice when the bird is at rest.

 Shot this fledgling green heron as it hunted dragonflies in a floating mat of vegetation in St. Mary's WV. You know how fast you have to be to grab a dragonfly? 

 The one that got away.

Throwing the neck (or the tongue) out from a short distance is the difference between a roundhouse punch from the shoulder and a quick jab thrown from the elbow.  The jab isn't as powerful, but it's much quicker, and quick is what you have to be to catch insects (or fish). Already, I was enjoying my foray into this frog's secrets.

But I knew it wasn't going to be all fun and games, playing with a frog tongue.

There was only one way to really determine whether a Superworm had killed this poor creature.
 It was time to open the frog. The skin was like the finest thin latex, and the whitish abdominal muscles had to be cut with a scissors, as did the breastbone, so I could completely retract the abdominal walls. And there were its organs, pretty much just like a person's, with less intestine.

I saw two blackish granular structures that looked like caviar, one on each side, and knew I'd found the frog's ovaries. Ahhh, damn. It had been a female.

Kinda surprised me, because the tympanum (round external ear membrane) was pretty large.  Males have larger tympanae than females. 
Gotta listen for those spring choruses, you know, to get in on the action.


OK. Time to haul out the stomach and intestines, and see if there was a giant mealworm in there, or at least a hole somewhere. The stomach was fine, pink, unperforated (to the left of the pliers). The duodenum looked discolored right below the stomach. I thought I might have found something incriminating.
But when I opened it up, there were no holes, and it appeared that what I was seeing was the color of recently digested food, through the translucent wall of the duodenum (small intestine). It was an orange-red paste that for all I know might once have been a baby comet. So much for that.

Everything else inside the frog looked fine. I opened the stomach and examined its contents. Not a trace of a Superworm. Duodenum had checked out fine. Opened the caecum and examined its contents. Just normal looking frog poo, loaded up to launch. Small insect bits discernible in the fecal material. No hard chitin from a Superworm, at all. That had already passed through. This animal had been eating and digesting normally right up to its death. Nothing was bloated, nothing perforated, no internal bleeding and nothing amiss that I could see.  I had to conclude that perforation by Superworm was not the cause of its death. Not to say it can't ever happen, but I'm confident it didn't happen to this frog.

But there was something amiss on the frog, and I wanted to think about that.

The animal's left leg was bruised, with a hemorrhage running down the calf. Its foot was pretty swollen and discolored, too.

On the dorsal side, there were two very fresh wounds. One, a jagged tear in the skin. It would have taken something quite sharp, dragging across the frog's thigh, to make that.

There was also a puncture wound, from which some muscle protruded. See the tip of the pliers here, pointing at it.  Hmmmm. I couldn't see how either of those wounds, though, would kill the frog. But they were so fresh, they had to have something to do with her death. 

I have to thank Liam for taking these photos. I couldn't take any shots while doing the dissection. It was worse than trying to make movies while feeding bats (something I got pretty good at, thanks to a small gift tripod and a nimble tongue).

This isn't a flattering shot, but it is 100% Science Chimp Zick. Completely absorbed in the pursuit of knowledge. And for that, I love it. It's me, and I like who I am, because being normal is boring, and glamor ceased to be part of my world a long time ago.

 As Liam commented when I asked him if I should publish this photo:  "Of all the photos of me tearing apart a dead animal, this is the worst!" Which sent me into gales of laughter. This kid. He's made me laugh all summer long. God, I'll miss him when he goes back to school.

 Nah, it's not a glamour shot, and I look like a gnome, like something that lives in a tower. Oh, wait...

Hi Bacon! Thanks for stopping into this post. I love you.

I was left stumped. I decided to wrap up the autopsy and mull on it for awhile. I'd found out what I could find out from this poor frog, so I wrapped her in wet newspaper and set her in a cool place until nightfall, when I could put her body out for the possum who visits our compost. What a nice surprise it would be for him! Nothing gets wasted around here. And everybody eats.

I excavated the rider mower from its tangle of lawn chairs and bikes, replaced the front wheel whose tire I'd flattened and given to Marcy to get fixed (thanks, Marcy!!) Started it up, and began the hypnotic round and round the house and plantings. I was about five rounds into the mow when it hit me. A cut and a puncture wound wouldn't kill a frog...would it...

unless there was venom in what cut and punctured it.

Which explains the swelling and discoloration very nicely. That's what my finger looked like once upon a time, when I reached under a lavender bush for a weed and felt a hot lance to my hand. THAT good, old story is here: Committed to the Country

Durn copperheads. I build you a nice patio to live in, and you thank me by killing my frog. You struck; she jumped; you raked her with one fang, but you hit pay dirt, and punctured her leg with the other. Still, she got away, and plopped into the pond, already dying, a foot down, where you couldn't recover her. Wasted. Unless you consider that it was all a nice mental workout for a curious Science Chimp, and some fairly graphic entertainment for a few thousand people. 

And maybe a nice solid bit of debunking on a factoid that ain't necessarily true. That said, I'm not feeding any more Superworms to frogs. Better safe than sorry.

This year's fine brace of copperheads. Mr. and Mrs. Fak. I'm sure their banded babes will turn up very soon. I just hope none are in the basement.

Still, I suspect one of you Faks also killed the two bullfrogs who moved in this spring. The hummingbirds and warblers and chipping sparrows and I thank you for that. 

Circle of life, baby. Like my John Deere and my mind, it goes around and around.

Before the crape myrtle got killed back to the ground. When Chet, my tractor,  the crape myrtle and I were newer, and still shiny.

Feeding the Frog

Tuesday, August 6, 2019


I like my pond. Bill and I dug it in 1993, dropped some old carpet and a vinyl pond liner in the hole, filled it with the hose, put some fish and plants in it, and it's been going strong ever since. The original four shubunkin goldfish lived and reproduced for a couple decades, making babies that were all black, that you could hardly see in the dark water, until they all up and croaked of some disease. Well OK. That was that. I'd never wanted 70 fish in my pond, anyway.  I cleaned it out, waited awhile, and put some Comets in, and they've been hardy and friendly and most of all colorful! They have bred well but not explosively. I appreciate that.

  Twice a year, the pond's a huge pain in the butt to clean. However I have figured out how to do it without killing myself, as I was doing in this 2012 photo. I note with some satisfaction that I still don the same lime-green Columbia nylon shorts to clean it in 2019. Frugal to a fault. However now, instead of painstakingly siphoning muck off the bottom, stopping every 30 seconds to clear the clogs from the tubing, I do it ever so much more quickly and easily. I just get a square-sided Tupperware and scoop the sludge off the bottom, dump it in a bucket, and I'm done! Fabulous. Fast. Works better than siphoning. Plus, I can fertilize my roses and peonies with the sludge. BONUS.

Really, the pond is just an excuse to plant lots of flowers, drifts of color that ring it all summer long.  


Sometimes it's crape myrtle, sage and coreopsis; sometimes it's buddleia, Rudbeckia and zinnias.

One of my other favorite things about having a water garden is the frogs it attracts. There have been several summers when it was overrun with bullfrogs, and they can be a problem, especially if you're a chipping sparrow, warbler or hummingbird. But usually what I get is medium-sized green frogs who quietly take up residence, plop into the water with a little Yikes! when they see a human, then decide we are no threat after all and sit quietly and let us admire their beautiful gold-flecked eyes; their sweet froggy anatomy; their green lips.  

I had one live here for 18 years. I called him Raoul. Maybe he was a she. I'm not sure. But there's a post from 2013 about him here. 

This 2019 model was one such frog. Tame as all get out. I could lift the filter out, right next to it, and it wouldn't bat an eye.

Maybe it's because I fed it a couple of times.

I love this video. Frogs don't really seem to be looking at anything, until zoop! they nab it. And they don't seem to notice anything, except that they notice everything. Don't be fooled by their impassive golden eyes. They're watching your every move. And if you toss a worm to them, they know it was you who did it, and they hope you'll do it again. Same goes for lizards. Lizards NOTICE.

I posted this video on Facebook, and one of my friends who does wildlife rehab left a comment warning me that Superworms (the giant mealworm offered in the video) are dangerous to frogs! Well, who knew that? She said they can chew their way out of the frog's stomach! OMG! Huh? That sounded weird to me, so I asked The Google about that. Like many things I learn on the Intertubes, whether that's true or not depends to whom you're talking. I found some herp keepers' forums that emphatically pooh-poohed such claims. The story apparently originated with Petsmart, whose employees claim this to be true, and who warn people not to feed Superworms to amphibians or reptiles. Oh.

Superworms, for those who don't know, are normal mealworms (Tenebrio molitor) that have been given hormones that keep them from going through their normal instars. Basically they are arrested in development, staying in the larval stage, and they just get bigger and bigger instead of pupating and turning into beetles.  These Superworms I have now date from summer 2018. I'm curious to see how long they will live! They're handy to have on hand if you have a bird that needs a big meal.

Me, I trust a frog to know what it can handle and what it can't. This frog didn't have the slightest hesitation glupping up my superworms. (It only ate two). Having had a frog (Big Fergus) who ate BIRDS, with their pointy beaks and sharp claws, I had my doubts as to whether a large mealworm could kill its captor by chewing through its stomach before the mealworm died. Mealworms, super or not, give up pretty easily when you get them wet, not to mention, I'd think, when they drown in stomach acid. 


I didn't see our sweet green frog again after it ate those mealworms. As the days went by, I began to wonder...had I killed our frog with kindness?

Evil cackle. Another cliffhanger. You know how I love 'em. I'll be back. 
Heads up. Next installment is graphic. Not gross, in my opinion; more cool, but graphic. 
Hang on for that ride.

Saving Jemima: Pre-Order a Signed Copy

Monday, July 22, 2019


Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay is coming out September 10, 2019. I have an advance copy in hand. Every time I pick it up I feel grateful all over again to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for making such a beautiful book out of my stack of writings, paintings and photographs. I just shake my head. How lucky can you get, to work with the best natural history publisher on the planet to tell the story of an orphaned blue jay? She was some jay, but still. Lucky, and blessed.
Looks small here, but it's a healthy 6" x 9" x 1" Note jay-colored clothing on line.

For months, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about getting signed copies to my friends and you, my beloved blog community. I have had a sense all along that Jemima is going to hit bigger than any of my previous books; my agent tells me it is the most commercially appealing thing I’ve done. You don’t have to have a special interest in birds to appreciate it. You just have to like a good story that happens to feature a bird. 

My first book to feature both paintings and photographs! Woot! It's so EASY to illustrate a book with photos! But I don't do anything the easy way, so I did 20 paintings, too.
I had the great privilege of reading it for HMHCo's audio book (can you hear the squeal?!) and that is gonna kick butt. I loved recording it, even though parts of it were hard to get through. Like doing about 8 hours of radio. All things considered, I knew that I was looking at signing and boxing a LOT of books this time around.

Each chapter head watercolor gets a full-page treatment. Design by Martha Kennedy, Chief of Design, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. Yes I am grinning ear to ear!

I thought about what it’s been like to fulfill book orders from my home. I've done it for my last three books. How keeping track of orders, inscribing, signing, boxing, addressing and mailing books is pretty much all I do for months after a book hits. How lifting the boxes and loading them into and out of my car messes up my back. I used to drive each load 20 minutes to the nearest post office. Now, I'd have a 40 minute drive. Given what's happened in the last seven months, I realized I wasn’t up for any of that. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that my energy—that wonderful energy that I use to produce illustrated books and (ahem) increasingly rare blogposts-- is indeed finite, and it can be quickly drained away. I've had to critically assess how I spend that energy, because there's a lot less of it now. Swimming in a whirlpool will do that to you. My rationale that fulfilling orders for signed books is “part of my work” looks thin to me now. It’s not. It’s something I’ve been doing, doggedly, faithfully, but it’s a long way from being my true work. The truth is, it doesn't have to be done by me. The writing and illustrating and thinking does. And that's how I should be spending my time.

Meanwhile, my family is not the only one that's had a rough time since December, 2018. Bird Watcher’s Digest has been turned upside down, losing its Editor/Publisher and chief visionary when Bill passed away in March. Then Elsa, Bill’s mother and BWD’s founder, who was still working at 85, died tragically just two months later. It was a staggering double blow. Everyone is still picking themselves up. Yet out of the unimaginable chaos and loss, an answer to my small problem became clear to me.

I decided to direct my sales to Redstart Birding, the magazine’s sales, optics and expertise branch, which Bill and Ben Lizdas created not long before Bill fell ill. I’ll design a custom bookplate I can sign, and that will be included if you order a signed copy. Short of attending one of my talks, Redstart will be the only place you can get a signed copy of Saving Jemima. And proceeds of sales from those who want signed copies will go not to an online sales giant, but to the magazine that published my first article and painting in 1986, and helped me build a wonderful audience for my writing and art. It seems like a win all around. I'm grateful that my sweet friend, Redstart's stalwart Swiss Army knife Angela, is willing to take on all those orders, that packing and shipping. It won't be trivial.

 I think you'll love the story of this feisty young blue jay, and how she worked her way into our hearts. How I wound up saving her at least twice, and she saved me right back. Old story, I know, but rescue stories are rarely one-way (ask Curtis Loew!), and each one is unique. And this rescue was a blue jay, the best and brightest bird I could hope for.

So if you'd like to help support Bird Watcher's Digest and have a beautiful signed bookplate in your copy, you can pre-order Saving Jemima at Redstart Birding. Hit this link:  ORDER JEMIMA

 The book will be released September 10, 2019. It's roaring up! I can't wait for you to have it in your hands, too!

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