By Bill Marvel

We welcome birds and butterflies into our backyards. But what about the little brown snake that slithers out from under the flowerpot? And those weird gummy lizards hanging around the porch light? And — ugh! — toads? Do we really want to share our environment with . . . creeping things?

Photo: Jeff Ettling | St. Louis Zoo

Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racer

Increasingly, it seems we do.

“People these days are slower to kill reptiles, and especially snakes,” says Scott Pfaff, curator of herpetology at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, South Carolina.

More and more, environmentally aware folks are not only tolerating herps — snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders — but are making their yards and gardens more inviting for these once-despised creatures. And for sound ecological reasons: Yards that are environmentally friendly to herps are friendlier to all living things, including people.

Consider the backyard toad, hunkered down under a bush or hopping across the driveway after a rain. About 90 percent of the toad’s diet consists of garden pests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that in the course of the summer a single toad may consume 10,000 bugs. If several toads have taken up residence in your garden, that’s a lot of insecticide you don’t even have to think about.

Photo: Jeff Ettling | St. Louis Zoo
Three-toed Box Turtle

Lizards also consume insects. Several small snakes dine on that bane of vegetable growers, the slug. Box turtles, which occasionally wander through a congenial back yard, love to crunch up snails. Like any living creature, herps are just fun to watch and are an important part of our attachment to nature. All excellent reasons to turn your yard into a place of refuge for reptiles and amphibians.

“One of the most important things you can do is put in a fish pond,” says Pfaff. “But don’t put the fish in it. The probability is that they will eat the frog eggs. Some amphibians will even test the water for fish. They literally stick their toes in the water and if it has fish, they won’t breed in it.”

If the water turns greenish in your pond, he says, “don’t clean the algae. Tadpoles just love algae. Put in a few aquatic plants to help filter the water. And if you have water insects, they provide food.” If you’re worried about mosquitoes, you’ll get some help from the frogs and toads. They will eat them. You also can add mosquito “dunks” that are safe for the pond inhabitants.

“You can buy blocks infused with bacteria that kill the mosquito larva, but don’t harm anything else. Or you can collect gambusia [small fish that include guppies], which will eat the mosquito larva, but, because they are too small, won’t eat the frog eggs or tadpoles,” Pfaff says.

Pfaff recently installed an ordinary kiddies’ wading pool in his own backyard. Green frogs, gray tree frogs and bullfrogs appeared, almost like magic. “Frogs travel a great distance over land, and how they find a pond we don’t know,” he says. “They show up from nowhere.”

Leave as much of your backyard as natural as possible, he says. Encourage naturayroffrog.gifl plant growth. “Don’t have a monoculture of grass.” And use pesticides and herbicides sparingly.
With their soft, porous skin, amphibians are particularly vulnerable to almost every kind of chemical. “They’re like sponges,” says Jeff Ettling, curator of reptiles, amphibians and fish at the St. Louis Zoo.

Partly because of pollution, frog and toad populations are in retreat around the world. To draw attention to the crisis, Ettling says, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has designated 2008 The Year of the Frog. His zoo will open an educational exhibit, Awesome Amphibians, later this month.