|Tallahassee Democrat, June 16, 2005|
Armored Insect Eaters
By Sandy Beck
“Possum on the half-shell,” “Hoover Hog, “pocket dinosaur” and “Texas turkey.” These are some of the kinder names given to one of our most unwelcome and underappreciated garden visitors, the armadillo – a Spanish word that means "little armored one."
About 10 million years after the last reptilian dinosaurs disappeared, armadillos began roaming the Earth. The giant armadillos that lived in Florida 10,000 years ago went extinct with the mastodon and other mega-mammals. Today, there are 20 species of armadillos in Central and South America, but only one species, Dasypus novemcinctus, the nine-banded armadillo, is found in the United States.
About 150 years ago, they began to migrate to the north and southeast from Mexico. San Francisco State University’s Department of Geography web site reports that in 1922, a boy caught a nine-banded armadillo near Miami. “An investigation led to a Marine in Texas who was stationed in Hialeah during World War I, where he admitted to bringing a pair of armadillos and releasing them after the war was over.”
Advancing from two different directions, the populations merged, and today nine-banded armadillos are found throughout Florida, except in the Keys and parts of the Everglades and Big Cypress swamp.
Although they sound like a large animal when foraging, these primitive-looking creatures are the size of a large house cat and quite harmless. Their upper bodies are covered by armor-like scales, with nine bands of these stiff plates on the back, while the thick skin on their bellies is covered with coarse fur.
Armadillos have very poor vision but excellent hearing and an acute sense of smell that enable them to locate their favorite food, insects and other invertebrates, up to six inches underground. They use their strong front feet and claws to dig up these tidbits and then poke their pointy snout and long, sticky tongue into the hole.
According to the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, armadillos
But while armadillos play an important part in helping to control destructive insects and other invertebrates, their untidy nocturnal rambles can wreak havoc on golf courses, lawns, flowerbeds and gardens as they dig up patches of grass and uproot plants.
Consequently, these anteater relatives are the scourge of many landowners, as evidenced by the frequent, exasperated calls received by Jon Johnson, St. Francis Wildlife’s executive director and wildlife rehabilitator.
“Can you tell me how to get rid of these armadillos?!”
Johnson suggests that people first look for the burrow.
“The armadillo will often dig next to the foundation of a house or AC unit or near a lake or stream. He may also get into a gully and then dig horizontal to the ground. The burrow opening is circular, unlike a gopher tortoise’s which is oval-shaped.
“Position a live-trap in front of the burrow then place wood on three sides to guide him into the trap.”
Just as visually-impaired people might use fences, structures and pathways to help guide them, so do armadillos. And once they’ve found a route they will stick to it, night after night. If you can't find the burrow, Johnson says to place your trap on an established route, then use two by twelve boards of lumber to form a “V” that will funnel him into the trap.
Johnson adds that some people recommend baiting the trap with a sock filled armadillo candy – worms mixed with earth, but this usually doesn't work well. Unlike a raccoon that can see the way into the trap is through the door, the armadillo will probably just claw at the side of the trap until he sets it off.
The best, albeit most expensive, solution is a fence, either around your entire property or just a special garden, that is at least two feet high, buried at least 18 inches and slanted outward to prevent the animals from burrowing beneath it.
To keep armadillos or other animals from burrowing under your house, bury a similar section of fence or hardware cloth against the foundation.
The Cooperative Extension Service advises, “Because armadillos are nocturnal, all trapping techniques designed to capture armadillos should be applied late in the afternoon and checked several hours after darkness.”
Either method should be used with caution during the spring and summer months to avoid orphaning nursing babies left in the burrow.
Hopefully, this will help you solve your armadillo problems. But, then again, having armadillos in your yard may not be such a bad thing. They won’t kill your lawn – just mash the patch of grass back down, and consider the natural pest control service they provide. One armadillo can eat 200 pounds of insects each year. Its digging also aerates plant roots, promoting growth.
And they’re just plain amazing. Armadillos can cross a stream by walking across the bottom while holding their breath for up to six minutes. They’re the only animal to consistently give birth to same-sex, identical quadruplets. Armadillos may even help scientists find a cure for leprosy. While the disease does not occur in Florida’s armadillos, apparently, their low body temperature makes them the perfect laboratory animals on which to test leprosy drugs, and their quadruplet babies allow scientists to examine the link between the disease and genetics.
So before you get the live trap, kick back in your hammock and weigh the advantages of having this unique creature around against having a perfect lawn. Don’t be surprised if the little, near-sighted guy wins. After all, he has, in one form or another, for the last 55 million years.
Sandy Beck is a freelance nature writer and serves as St. Francis Wildlife’s Education Director. Contact her and learn more about wildlife rescue at www.stfranciswildlife.org.