The voice of the bullfrog, who calls, according to the boys, “jug-o’-rum, jug-o’-rum, pull the plug, pull the plug”…
John Burroughs, 1905
On our birding trip to Ohio last week, I confirmed that I can still hear many of the warbler songs, but only if they are really close. But there is a “song” that I can hear very well, the love song of the American bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus. So, on Tuesday morning, while throngs of people on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh were looking up at colorful warblers, I stopped to look down into the water to see where that familiar jug-o’-rum call was coming from.
I spotted the caller sitting out in the open water a few feet from the boardwalk. Then, off to the side, another male called. They called back and forth a few times as I maneuvered trying to find a space through the thick shrubs that gave me a clear photo of the bulging yellow throat of the calling male. The first male suddenly skipped across the water surface toward the other male – FROG FIGHT!!
The frog I had been watching went about ten feet across the water and slammed into another male frog coming from the other direction…and the battle was on. Male bullfrogs establish and defend territories in suitable breeding habitat along a shoreline, hoping to attract females. Territories vary in size, but may be roughly 5 to 15 feet across, depending on the quality of the habitat.
Even the hard core birders around me were now watching this duel as the frogs were kicking up quite a bit of water as they tried to wrestle for position and an advantage.
After some leg flailing, the frogs locked arms and began a marathon shoving match. I’m not sure about the rues in frog wrestling, but I think the goal is to dunk your opponent until he cries Uncle, and makes a hasty retreat out of your prime spot. My original frog seemed to have one primary strategy – shove your nose into the throat of the other guy.
After a couple of minutes of struggle, the throat-shoving proved to be a winning strategy, and, as quickly as it had started, the battle was done. The vanquished frog turned tail and hopped away to fight another day, if he is lucky. You see, though these battles rarely cause any harm, there is a price to pay for all this posturing. Male bullfrogs tend to be more exposed in their habitat than the reclusive females, and are more noticeable as they call and move about defending their territories. This makes them more susceptible to predators, of which there are many.
We saw this firsthand at another marsh impoundment when a great blue heron snagged a bullfrog (an unwary male perhaps?) and managed to gulp it down in just a few seconds. Not even a jug-o’-rum will help that guy…