Rom's mother always said that a toad or two under the kitchen sink was all one needed to keep the house clean of cockroaches. Guess what, much like everything else on our crazy farm, toads just colonised our house en masse, in a scene not different from the tree frog invasion. Like walking on a forest path, every night I had to watch where I put my foot in the house. No matter how careful I was, the magnificently-sized, sticky toad turds just jumped out, and stuck themselves to the soles of my feet! Forgetting whatever I was doing, I was forced to hobble off to wash the offending black ‘toad-gum' immediately. After a few such nightly episodes, I threw the toads out of the house, but fearlessly they returned to face my wrath.

I collected them in a plastic container and took them to the edge of the front yard, about 250 metres away, and released them. They had the temerity to return. I marked them (identification), spun the container round and round (disorientation, I thought), took them on a long detour around the farm (confusing, I imagined) before letting them go 500 metres away. There! I proclaimed in smug confidence. They were back in 25 hours.

By now, the blighters knew what was in store when the she-ogre came for them. They squeaked in distress, pissed copiously in fright, and tried to evade capture. I almost relented, but now curiosity drove me on. 750 metres. Back in 30 hours. That's a fairly long distance for small creatures to navigate. Spun the bottle, took them down the long dirt path, across the road, into the jungle and let them go by a puddle. One km away. Success? While I succeeded in chasing them out of the house, I found a couple with tell-tale markings in the outdoor planters. Now I can't tell if all of them made it back or only some did. What do other creatures do when taken far from home? Here are some interesting facts I unearthed.

In Namibia, out of eleven marked leopards that were moved 800 very long km, six returned home over a period of five to 28 months. Let me put it this way: if these cats had been taken from Chennai and released somewhere a bit north of Goa, they were able to walk right back! In the U.S., most of the 34 black bears that were moved about 200 km from their home territories returned successfully. In India, an elephant translocated from the Terai to Buxa Tiger Reserve, a distance of about 250 km, returned in less than 2 months. Salt water crocodiles in Australia were shown to home back after being moved 400 km. Put me in Bangalore, and I'm lost immediately.

However, the distance record for homing is held by seabirds such as albatrosses and shearwaters. An albatross taken from an island in the central Pacific and released about 6500 km away in the Philippines returned in a month, two others returned from Washington State, 5,000 km away.

It is not just the larger animals who have this amazing skill. In the U.K., bumblebees found their way home after being randomly dropped off 13 km from their hives. So what's a km to a toad, eh?

The fact that these animals, birds and insects return home is well-documented. But, how do they find their way through unfamiliar terrain over long distances?

Since these animals are frequently moved in covered vehicles on the outward journey (or a closed plastic container), it is unlikely they remember the route. In many cases, the animals return journey did not follow the road they were taken out on at all, but instead, took a more direct path homewards. So, how do they do it?

(To be continued)

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)

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