In Praise of Puddles

Posted by on May 2, 2017 in spring, Unmowed Blog | 1 comment

Ah, spring! The time of birds singing, wildflowers blooming…and mud.

            I used to think of mud puddles as a necessary penance, the price we pay for warmer weather. Wet shoes and muddy boots seem a small matter, as long as sunshine comes along with them. Other than that, puddles are fun for kids to splash in. What else could a mud puddle possibly be good for?

            But one day I happened to notice a puddle on the edge of a dirt road. The water of the puddle appeared to be moving in some strange way, with rippling wavelets like a miniature ocean. On closer inspection I discovered it was filled with wriggling black tadpoles, each about half-an-inch long. And hopping around the margins of the puddle were hordes of little toads, so tiny you could fit several of them in a teaspoon.

            Toads lay eggs in shallow pools, and the resulting tadpoles zip through the process of metamorphosis. The journey from egg to adult can take some species of frogs two years, but toads do it all in about thirty days. The toads have no time to waste—they have to get a move on, before their puddle dries up and leaves them high and dry.

            I started wondering what else puddles were good for. Turns out puddles have all sorts of uses. They’re swimming pool, bathtub, drinking fountain and Home Depot for dozens of species of animals.

            On a hot summer day, birds dive into a puddle like kids playing around in the neighborhood pool. Do wild animals ever just kick back and have a little fun? Surely a robin splishing and splashing in a puddle seems to be enjoying life. But of course all that washing and sluicing of the feathers isn’t just frivolity. Birds need to bathe their feathers often to keep them in peak flying condition. Clean and well-groomed feathers are much more effective than dirty ones when there’s a predator to dodge.   

            Puddles are a crucial source of home-building materials for dozens of species. Mud-dauber wasps roll the mud into balls, then carry the mud away in their front legs. The insects attach the sticky mud to a rock or wall, and craft a sturdy house to shelter their young. Some types of mud-daubers create delicate structures that look like miniature pipe-organs, others just stick a clump of mud on the wall. But no matter what the nest shape, the mud provides a cool, safe home for the eggs.

            I love to watch barn swallows dart and soar. These beautiful acrobats seem to be creatures of the sky, but they’re completely dependent on mud. They flit to puddles, grab a beakful of mud, and make a mud nest glued to the rafters of barns and sheds. But if there’s no mud, there’ll be no baby barn swallows. Lack of a readily available source of mud for nest building is directly linked to declines in populations of barn swallows.

            Even butterflies love puddles. They engage in a behavior called “puddling.” (“Puddle” can be a verb, as in “I feel like puddling today.”) When butterflies puddle, they land at the shallow edges of puddles and rest there, slowly fanning their wings. They sip water and feed on minerals found in the damp earth.

            Not every puddle is butterfly or toad-friendly, though. A puddle in a blacktop driveway, with a rainbow of oil on the water or full of leaked contaminants from cars, is no place for animals to drink or kids to splash in.

            So don’t be ashamed of muddy driveways and soggy lawns. Cherish those few remaining pot-holed dirt roads. Admire the mud puddles in your yard. Own them with pride! You’re hosting a type of all-too-scarce wildlife habitat. These damp spring days, I’m looking at mud from a bird’s-eye, or toad’s-eye, or bug’s-eye point of view. 

           

One Comment

  1. A beautifully written piece, that makes me want to stop and consider something I’ve taken for granted.

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