Susan Andrews | Horny Toads: A Cautionary Tale

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Horny toads. I have a sentimental attachment to them. As a child, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I found their dinosaur-like appearance fascinating. On hot summer days I spent hours watching them. They were part of my childhood. Now they have vanished from the local landscape. 

Butterflies and moths. When I was a child, I often saw clouds of monarchs, other types of butterflies, and moths. It was a delight to watch them — even the moths with marks on their wings that looked like creepy eyes. Now, as an adult living in the Santa Clarita Valley, I occasionally see one monarch or a small blue or white butterfly.

Birds. In my childhood there were multitudes of birds — robins, sparrows, doves and others I loved to watch but couldn’t name. They soared through the air, hopped on the ground in search of worms, sat on tree branches, and bathed in puddles. Chirping. Singing. Now I mainly see and hear crows.

Where have they all gone? Why? 

In his article “Where Did All the Horny Toads Go?” in Reptiles Magazine, John B. Virata interviewed filmmaker Stefanie Leland, who made a documentary bearing that title. Most of the scientists she spoke with “believe that there is a multitude of reasons for the horny toad’s decline. These reasons range from human development and alteration of the landscape to pesticide use and pet trade.” 

We build houses on and cement over their habitats. Ants are their only food source, and we kill off the ants. People take them indoors and keep them as pets, and other people collect and sell them.

As for the monarchs, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, California’s population of monarch butterflies declined 86% in 2018 compared to 2017. The society attributed the loss to a late rainy season, wildfires (smoke, bad air and loss of habitat), as well as ongoing habitat loss, use of pesticides, and climate change. 

And what of birds? In his Sept. 19, 2019, New York Times article “Birds Are Vanishing from North America,” Carl Zimmer shares information from the journal Science. “The number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29% since 1970….There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing than there were 50 years ago.” Most of the causes involve loss of habitat and use of pesticides.

Walter Farley, the author of the “Black Stallion” series, which I adored as a child, wrote another, lesser known series about an island stallion. In “The Island Stallion Races,” which was published in 1955, aliens come to the island, befriend Steve, the stallion’s young companion, and take them to a race. It’s all very exciting, but the thing that most stayed with me was the aliens’ love of our beautiful planet, as, due to their poor stewardship, theirs was now nearly void of life. To my young self, this was unimaginable, pure science fiction, but now here we are — headed in that direction.

However, as with “The Island Stallion Races,” this is a cautionary tale, not a gloom and doom scenario:

• Horny toads are not extinct. They can still be found in the desert, far from human habitations, and their habitats can be protected. 

• Experts from around the country recently gathered at a conference in Carmel, sharing information on monarchs, and there is some good news. According to Mia Monroe, the coordinator for the Western Monarch Counts, “The numbers this year remain as low as last year’s numbers. We didn’t see a rebound. The upside is that the numbers didn’t drop either; they’re holding steady.” Hopefully, there is still time for experts to figure out ways not only to keep the numbers of monarchs from declining but increase them.

• Audubon California, in a July 2, 2015, article, “California’s Common Birds in Decline,” says there are many things we can do to protect our feathered friends — protect local habitat, promote sound agricultural policy, protect wetlands, combat invasive species and fight global warming.

People in our own community are stepping up and becoming stewards of our planet. For example, College of the Canyons, the Santa Clarita Environmental Educational Consortium, and the Community Gardens of Santa Clarita are taking part in the Western Bluebird Restoration Project, and a bluebird nesting box has been placed in the gardens. The gardens are not only a place where food is grown in a sustainable manner, but also they are a habitat for many species of birds and other creatures — a place of hope, inspiration, tranquility and beauty. There may not be any horny toads in the gardens, but the day I visited, I did see a monarch butterfly.

Susan Andrews is a member of the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby and lives in Newhall.

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