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Cracker Barrel: The frogs

Living as we do by the shores of a marshy lake, we are very much aware of our neighbors, the frogs.

Each spring, right about now, the first of the croaking begins. When we hear it we are invariably thrilled. More than the return of the juncoes or the trilling of the red-winged blackbirds, the croaking of the frogs means spring.

For months and months we've forgotten all about them. We know vaguely that they're burrowed somewhere in the frozen mud, hibernating through the winter. But it's mostly a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Then as if by magic they "return." Struggling up unseen through the thawing edges of the marsh, warmed back to movement by the strengthening sun, they wait until their ancient instincts dictate that the time is right - and the croaking begins.

No wonder these peculiar creatures have given rise to superstition. From time beyond recollecting, people have believed that frogs fall from the sky during a rain.

Actually, many species that live underground leave their burrows during or after a rain or at the start of the mating season. Since humans seldom observe these frogs the rest of the year, it's easy to see how the superstition began.

Then, too, the frog is by nature something of a magician, or at least a quick-change artist. Amphibious, it's at home both on land and in water. Starting out as an egg, the trickster soon hatches into a tadpole or polliwog, more fish than frog. It swims about, breathing by means of gills, eating bits of plants and decaying animal matter.

In time it begins to develop legs. Later it grows lungs and its digestive system changes, enabling it to eat live animals. Just before its metamorphosis into a frog, the tadpole loses its gills.

Finally a tiny frog, still bearing a stump of a tail, emerges from the water.

Even as a grownup, the frog plays tricks. Some species change their skin color with changes in the humidity, light and temperature. All of them shed their outer layer of skin many times a year. Using their forelegs, they pull the old skin off over their heads, much like a person removing a sweater.

Then, as if to destroy the evidence of their identity switch, they eat the old skin.

Most frogs have a sticky tongue attached to the front part of the mouth, which they can rapidly flip out to capture prey. And most species come equipped with very powerful hind legs, enabling them to jump up to 20 times their body length and so avoid being eaten for lunch by the hawks, herons, raccoons, snakes, turtles and fish that prey upon them. Unfortunately, humans find frogs' legs a delicacy, and by a strange twist of evolutionary fate, the survival value of big meaty legs turns out to be something of an Achilles' heel.

But thoughts of death are distant in the spring. Like many other creatures at this time of year, frogs seem mostly interested in procreation. It is this drive that compels the newly thawed male to started croaking in hopes of attracting some pretty young thing all done up in green.

And in the process of his quest, he makes us very glad to be alive.

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com

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