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'Frog whisperer' helps de-croak neighborhoods

Hawaii's big problem with a little critter.

By Rich_Maloof Apr 5, 2013 4:13PM

Summer is coming, and with it the warm evenings filled with nature’s music: the soothing scratch of crickets, the low croak of a frog in a bog, the hoot of a distant owl.

Could anything be more annoying?

On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, high humidity and Pacific winds make for lush areas where small coquí frogs sing their mating songs through the night — and residents there have had quite enough, thank you very much.

The coquí, whose name is an onomatopoeia for the chirpy whistle these tree frogs emit, don’t grow to be more than an inch or two long but create a plus-sized racket. Their nocturnal calls reportedly can reach 90 decibels. Sound ordinances in some towns restrict the volume of rock concerts to 90 dB. But you can’t unplug a frog.

Getty Images

Enter Keevin Minami, the "frog whisperer." Minami is a land-vertebrate expert for Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture, reports The Wall Street Journal, and he can imitate a coquí chirp so convincingly that the female frogs emerge from hiding to check him out. That’s when he makes his move, capturing the frogs in a tube. A nature lover by trade, Minami saves as many coquí as he can by bringing them back to his office to live in a terrarium.

Not everyone thinks so kindly of the mini amphibians. State-sponsored “frog wars” have championed their capture and extermination. Hawaii’s Big Island declared a state of emergency because of the quarter-sized invaders, but efforts were unsuccessful. Locals now take matters into their own hands to preserve their tourism trade and their sleep. Some spray heated water on plants to kill the frogs, and some say that sprinkling baking soda or spraying citric acid does them in. The more humane just cover their ears with a pillow and wait till morning.

Noise pollution is apparently not the only problem these little hoppers are causing. The coquí first set foot in Hawaii as stowaways on cargo ships arriving from Puerto Rico back in the 1980s, The WSJ explains, and the invasive species may be upsetting the balance of Hawaii’s ecosystem by eating bugs that are the natural prey of endemic species. With no natural predators in Hawaii, coquí populations are increasing in leaps and bounds.

They do have defenders beyond the frog whisperer, however. Medical anthropologist Syd Singer, perhaps the most compassionate of frogophiles, strives to protect the coquí and has gone so far as to set up a sanctuary where they can whistle in peace all night long — as they do back home, where they are the official frog of Puerto Rico.

“That sound is so revered in Puerto Rico that people can’t sleep without it,” says Singer, who has opposed the vilification of the coqui for years. “I realized Hawaii didn’t have a frog problem, they had an attitude problem.”

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