Plague of Frogs

Posted on: July 27th, 2014 by

Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Plague of Frogs

In the summer of 1952, the town of Oconto was invaded. The town lies on the western shore of Green Bay (map), and has been home to humans for thousands of years. Native Americans have lived there since at least 2000 B.C., roughly, when it was home to a community of Old Copper Culture people. Before Europeans arrived, the Menominee had a fishing village there, and gave Oconto its name. About 1670, French traders and missionaries arrived, but they didn’t stay long. The first permanent white settler arrived in 1846 to build a sawmill, and for the next century logging dominated the local economy. But by the mid-20th century, the forest products industry had slowed down. Leaders of the town of about 5,000 residents wondered what would come next.

It was frogs.

Leopard frogs. Rana pipiens, to be exact. In two days during the summer of 1952, the New Yorker reported, an estimated 175,000,000 frogs — yes, million — emerged from local marshes and “practically enveloped the town. The explosions of amphibians beneath the wheels of automobiles at night sounded like rifle fire. People mowing their lawns did so in a storm of flying frog legs and truncated frog bodies.”

The marshes near Oconto always supported frogs, but never before in such numbers. Typically, the water level of Lake Michigan would rise in the spring, wetlands would flood, leopard frogs would lay eggs, and when the lake level receded with the advance of summer, most of the eggs would die. But in 1952, Lake Michigan remained high. And inconceivably huge numbers of gelatinous frog eggs grew into hungry, live amphibians.

“A man I know,” continued the New Yorker reporter, “said they had besieged his house one night in what he swore was a highly organized way. He had gone out on his front lawn to have a look around with his flashlight and had been confronted by a million shining little eyes. He started toward the back yard and found that he had been outflanked. He swung the light around and discovered that the whole house was encircled. It was a scary thing to see, he said.” By morning they had departed for greener pastures, or puddles, and he was left to scoop them out of his basement window wells with a shovel. He took out two bushels.

As the summer wore on, Oconto townspeople joked about calling out the National Guard and eating frogs’ legs but nothing could be done. Besides, there was a silver lining: few mosquitoes were seen that summer, as tens of millions of sticky tongues snapped them up with lightning speed. Eventually the legions of frogs began to dwindle with the water levels and food supplies. The phenomenon has never been repeated, and apparently older local residents still recall the summer of the frogs with amazement.

 [Source: Waldron, Eli. “A Carnival of Frogs.” New Yorker. April 11, 1953: 73-89. Quoted in: Turner, Frederick B. “The Demography of Frogs and Toads.” Quarterly Review of Biology 37/4 (Dec. 1962): 303-314. McCoy, Sue, et. al. Yarns of Wisconsin (Madison: Wisconsin Trails/Tamarack Press, c1978).