The curious case of the screaming plant

Northwoods Notebook

Phyllis Carlson photo THIS EASTERN GRAY tree frog turned up hiding in a potted plant in a home in Niagara, Wis.

Pam Behnke wasn’t expecting a reaction when she watered her plants earlier this month.

Then one of them began to scream. Or screech. She just knew it was loud and coming from the dozen or so pots of greenery in the corner of her Niagara, Wis., home.

No, this wasn’t “Little Shop of Horrors” comes to the North Woods. Behnke luckily had an inkling what she might be dealing with — so she called wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson.

Which is how Carlson ended up a week ago sitting on Behnke’s floor, picking her way through a sizable umbrella tree plant, carefully pulling back and peering under every leaf.

Outwardly, she could see nothing, and the plant emitted not a peep. Then, scanning the trunk and leaves while slowly rotating the plant, Carlson caught sight of what at first glance looked like “(bird) droppings on a leaf.”

They were mottled tiny toes with little suction cups, clinging to the leaf’s edge. Another turn solved the mystery: a gray tree frog that apparently didn’t want to abandon the plant when it was brought back indoors this past fall.

Really, who can blame it, given the winters up here?

As many people in the region do, Behnke had placed her houseplants on the deck outside during the summer. She wasn’t surprised the plants gained some squatters, just glad it wasn’t anything more threatening than a small frog — she’d worried at first it might be a bat.

But her dog, Polo, never reacted despite the decibel level, which she called considerable. The frog first began calling not long after she brought in the plants, but she thought the noise came from the deck, not inside the house.

This actually is the second time Carlson has dealt with a frog as home intruder. Strangely, the first involved a co-worker of Behnke’s, which is why she turned to Carlson when the racket began in the umbrella tree.

Being mid-winter, there’s no chance of returning a frog outdoors for now. Instead, it’s taken up comfortable residence in a terrarium Carlson quickly put together in her home. She’s dropped in a few crickets in case the frog needs a meal.

It might seem unlikely it could go for months in Behnke’s home with little, if anything, to eat, but being cold-blooded, frogs normally don’t need much food, and the cooler temperatures dial down the metabolism even more. Had it remained outside, it would have tucked itself away to hibernate for the winter.

The biggest risk indoors is drying out, Carlson added. It also probably won’t be able to go into a hibernation state, so she’ll keep the crickets coming.

Carlson did have one last question about the frog: was it an Eastern gray or a Copes, a rarer variety in this area. Both look very similar, but the Copes has what is described as a shrill, harsh call — which matches the “screaming” Behnke reported — while the Eastern species has a pleasant trill, not unlike a raccoon.

The little frog provided a musical answer within days: Eastern gray tree frog.

In summer, these tree frogs often can be spotted in gardens tucked inside large flowers or where a broad leaf meets the stem. They’ve also been known to climb porch and door screens.

Carlson she says she’s enjoying the unexpected house guest. She’ll release it when the weather reliably warms.


On a related note, Michigan biologists are looking for volunteers to help with an annual survey of frogs and toads in the state.

Declining numbers of frogs, toads and other amphibians have been documented worldwide since the 1980s. Studies suggest they’re disappearing because of habitat loss, pollution, disease and collection.

Michigan has seen a decline in Fowler’s toads and mink frogs over the past 20 years, said Lori Sargent of the state Department of Natural Resources. They have a limited range in Michigan, unlike other frog and toad species.

The surveys are conducted by volunteer observers along a system of permanent routes, each consisting of 10 wetland sites. They listen for calling frogs and toads at each site, identify the species and estimate abundance.

Those interested in volunteering can contact Sargent at 517-284-6216 or

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or