December 23, 2015

Armadillos and Gardens


Art by William Pierson

Shuffling sounds in the fallen leaves startled me awake inside the dark tent. I was alone with my 10-month-old daughter while camping on Cumberland Island. My husband had left to talk to UGA students working on a bobcat restoration project. The scratching noises grew louder. I turned on my flashlight and slipped quietly out of the tent. The weak beam lit up a dark, hunched creature, the size of a raccoon, but dragging a long tail. Was it a giant rat? I picked up a stick to club the dangerous rodent if it got too close.

My husband returned at that moment and saw me brandishing my weapon of choice. He said that those were only armadillos hunting for insects. That was November 1988, and my first experience with these interesting insectivores, whose relatives are anteaters and sloths. I forgot about them for a couple of decades.

This past July, while walking at dawn, I glanced up to see a pair of armadillos trotting merrily toward me like a pair of well-matched ponies. They appeared perfect for pulling a miniature coach. Their weak eyesight allowed me to get close. But their hearing and sense of smell are good. Suddenly, they paused, touched snouts together and scurried off in opposite directions. They were adorable. Even as roadkill, they look cuter than opossums, because their hard outer shell holds their guts together. That’s when their nickname “possum on a half-shell” makes sense. Their love of digging, however is not so cute.

Several years ago, I heard stories of armadillos showing up in different places around Athens. Gardeners worried about them digging up vegetable patches and flower beds. These armored mammals—originally from South America—arrived here with a preference for warm climates and sandy or loamy soil. Soft dirt makes it easy to uncover delectable invertebrates such as beetles, grubs and millipedes, which the armadillo laps up with a sticky tongue. Today, fencing gains greater importance for keeping out deer as well as these more recent newcomers.

With their short, strong legs and good-sized claws, the common, or nine-banded, armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) not only digs through soil with ease but also likes to burrow. Gardeners dislike burrowing mammals, since they destroy plants. The burrow, however, is crucial to armadillos; it protects them from predators and extreme temperatures. When threatened by a large animal, they may hop up into the air before trying to scramble into their burrow. This popcorn-like behavior is why they get hit by cars when drivers see them on the road and try to straddle them. The armadillo just doesn’t know how to keep down low when a vehicle is going over it.

According to Living with Wildlife authors Diana Landau and Shelley Stump, armadillos play a helpful role in reducing the insect population. Here’s their suggestion: “Alternatively, view the armadillo as a natural insect-control mechanism and share your yard with it.” Why not give this kind idea a try?