The Ripple: The Magic of Spring Peepers. The Science of Vernal Pools

How do spring peepers know when to start singing?

Vernal pools contain creatures (amphibians and bugs) that can only breed where there are no hungry fish. Citizen scientists are needed to find and report vernal pools in the Hilltowns. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

How do spring peepers know when to start singing?

They don’t have weather reports, or the ability to see the buds forming on trees, the snow melting, or teens walking around in shorts and T’s when it’s 40 degrees and climbing.

Certainly, there are scientific reasons that explain how peepers know when to announce the return of the sun and the warmth; but there’s a simpler reason that is worth considering and appreciating. The peepers feel the right moment to sing.

Peepers are a special family of frogs, and frogs have a unique physiology—a evapotranspirative skin that makes them especially sensitive to the slightest changes in temperature, humidity, chemistry and other things we don’t have words for including that feeling that we also get when spring arrives. There is, for example, a new kind of sunlight that appears out of the grey, slush and slog of the late winter months that Emily Dickinson noticed, and maybe you and the peepers notice too.

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The Ripple: Message of the Spring Peepers

What the Peepers Are Telling Us

Eggs in a vernal pool near the Westfield River in West Chesterfield, MA. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Last night, I sped my family home from a week of Spring Break that took us far from the Nonotuck biome. As they slumbered in their car seats, I was feeling anxious—Had the leaf buds burst yet? I couldn’t see; it was too dark.  This fleeting moment of the return of life is one of the sweetest in the circle of seasons, isn’t it? The thought of missing it brought a dull pain to my heart. An imaginary finger wagged in mind: “Was your vacation worth it?” But just as we approached Mt. Tom on Rt 141 in Holyoke, where it ascends and then drops over the old volcanic ridge into the plush yet rusted valley of Easthampton, we heard it..

PEEPERS!!!“my daughter exalted, suddenly awake. The sound of thousands of frogs, louder than the radio and engine drone, almost vibrated our skins. We were so happy! To be home again where the viva-power of our non-human neighbors is so intense, and so inspiring.

I didn’t need to see the treebuds anymore—the frogs told me they hadn’t burst yet.

The vivifying relationship between the peepers and the trees and the rivers is one we sense, and feel, and celebrate. The mere appearance of the tiny frogs in the vernal pools, their cheerful uninhibited en masse braying—all those Romeos impressing their Juliettes—is something real that signals that life, the bios, is so much bigger and more beautiful than we can embrace with our thoughts, our science, our philosophies, our stories, our paintings and our music (That doesn’t mean we can’t try to, though; Vermont-based musician Nico Case talks about how she sings along with the peepers.).

Go ahead—try to catch a spring peeper. Track their sounds to the pool they’re cavorting in and you’ll find that, just at the moment you’re almost close enough to see them, they hush. Get closer and you’ll find, that unless you’re ready to get your feet and hands wet, all you’ll see is dead leaves submerged under water. The peeper family is an ancient one, and it got that way because it knows how to hide from raccoons, birds and humans.

And yet, despite all this, Robert Frost deserves credit for nearly getting his arms around these squirming multitudes. In his poem Hyla Brook, he re-presents the relationship between Hylas (peepers ), trees and rivers that I want you to witness outside today. He describes how, as temperature rises, trees awaken from their winter slumber and suck the water out of the soil. The vernal pools, and forest streams and brooks, start disappearing the moment that leaves start unfolding on branch tips; all that water becomes the green of the trees. This is why white water canoeing is an early spring sport—

The songs of the peepers, then, peal before buds break and flowers appear. For all we know, it’s not only us who listen with joy; the trees might be listening, too.

Find out how families can become citizen scientist for Vernal Polls in Western MA in Hilltown Families’ recent post, Citizen Scientists Wanted for Vernal Pool Habitat.


Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family.  Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!

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