Creature Feature: Armadillo

The Aztecs called them turtle rabbits. German settlers called them armored pigs. Some Southerners refer to them as opossums on the half-shell or Texas speed bumps. Whatever you call them, these fascinating creatures play an important role in the health of our ecosystem. Read on to learn more about the official small mammal of Texas! 

Fast Facts 

  • The name armadillo means “little armored one” in Spanish.  
  • Nine-banded armadillos almost always give birth to four identical quadruplets. 
  • Contrary to popular belief, nine-banded armadillos are unable to roll their shell into a ball. Of the 21 species of armadillo, only the three-banded armadillo can accomplish that feat. 
  • When surprised, nine-banded armadillos tend to leap straight into the air, up to 5 feet! 

What do they look like? 

Here in Texas, only one species of armadillo can be found: the nine-banded armadillo. These little guys are distinguished by the presence of seven to eleven “bands” across the middle of their armor.  

Roughly the size of a small dog, averaging 2.5 feet long and 12 pounds, they don’t have any fur on their brown body save for some hairs under their head and belly.  The most distinctive feature of an armadillo is the bony, armor-like plates that offer protection from predators. They have a long snout they use to root through the soil and powerful claws to dig up dinner.  

What do they eat? 

Armadillos are primarily insectivores and use their keen sense of smell to track invertebrates such as beetles, fire ants, snails, spiders, white grubs, cockroaches and more. They will also eat fruits, seeds, and occasionally carrion. 

What eats them? 

Because of their small size and poor eyesight, nine-banded armadillos fall victim to both larger animals and humans. Coyotes, wolves, bobcats, alligators and even large birds of prey are known to attack armadillos. Most nine-banders are killed by humans, either on purpose for their meat or accidentally by cars. Despite this, the nine-banded armadillo population is considered stable and classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.  

Super swimmers 

While they may not look like it, our regional armadillos are fantastic swimmers! However, their methods are unusual, to say the least. In order to keep their heavy shells from sinking, armadillos will inflate their stomachs to twice their normal size to stay afloat. They’re also known to walk directly across the bottom of rivers and lakes. These unique abilities to cross the water have contributed to the armadillo’s wide population distribution across the United States; nine-banded armadillos primarily reside in the Southeastern U.S. but have been found as far north as Illinois and Nebraska.  

Check out this video to see them in action! 

Regulations and removal 

While armadillos may be considered a nuisance due to their tendency to dig in your yard, it’s important to remember that they consume many creatures we consider pests -cockroaches, grubs, scorpions, termites and more. If you can’t exclude them and are concerned about damage to your plants or lawn, contact a professional for humane removal. Although it is legal to trap armadillos at any time, you must notify the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before relocating the animal.   

Interested in learning more about local wildlife? Check out these past Creature Features: 

Creature Feature: Owls

Mysterious, spooky, wise, lovable. Depending on who you ask, owls have quite the reputation. With four species found in our area – Eastern Screech, Great Horned, Barred and Barn – it’s likely there are a few living in the woods near you.  

Fast Facts 

  • Owls can turn their neck up to 135 degrees in either direction – 270 degrees of rotation! 14 neck bones – 7 more than humans – allow owls to swivel back and forth effortlessly.  
  • Owls make virtually no noise when they fly. Their wing feathers have comb-like serrations that break turbulence into smaller currents and reduce sound.  
  • Not all owls hoot. Barn Owls make hissing sounds, Eastern Screech Owls whinny like a horse and Saw-Whet Owls are named after the sound they make which is similar to the sound of a whetstone sharpening a saw. To hear the various sounds and calls from owls across North America, check out the Audubon Owls Guide for your phone and I.D. owls on the go.

Owls come in all sizes. The largest owl in North America is the Great Gray Owl which can grow as tall as 32“. The smallest is the Elf Owl – 5-6” tall and about a mere 1 ½ ounces in weight.  

Here in East Texas, if you’re lucky you might see one of the largest owls in North America – the Great Horned Owl. At almost 2’ tall, the Great Horned Owl is adaptable to many habitats, including city neighborhoods, forested areas, coastal areas, deserts and mountains. Listen for the deep, low hoo, hoohoo, hoo that sounds like a deeper a dove’s call.  

What do they eat? 

Great at pest control, a single adult owl can eat up to 50 pounds of gophers, mice, rats and moles in one year. A barn owl family will eat up to 3,000 rodents in one growing season, but they aren’t the only thing on the menu. Owls eat insects, earthworms, fish, crawfish, amphibians, other birds and small mammals too.  

With large eyes and super-sensitive hearing, owls can find the smallest vole, even in total darkness. They use their talons to rip prey into smaller pieces, for better digestion, because they swallow the pieces whole. Bones and fur compact into a pellet which the owl later coughs up. 

Why do we need them? 

Owls play a critical role in nature’s complex food web by helping manage overpopulation. It’s easy to see why farmers like having owls around. Many will install owl nesting boxes to help with pest control, and it’s cheaper and safer than poison. 

Unfortunately, owls, like many birds, are declining in population due to loss of habitat and increased use of chemicals. Good news is that there are ways that you can help. 

  • Use traps instead of poison when controlling rodent populations 
  • Leave dead trees as a nesting or roosting option, as long as it’s not a safety hazard for those nearby. Or consider installing a nesting box for small owls, like the Eastern Screech Owl. 
  • Reduce or minimize outdoor lighting at night, when owls are hunting. 
  • Drive slow and stay alert for flying owls and roadside birds at night.

Test your Birdwatching IQ with the 13 species you can see in Texas.  

Interested in learning more about local wildlife? Check out these past articles: 

5 Steps to Create a Backyard Bird Habitat

Did you know Texas is home to more species of birds than any other state? In fact, we host more than half of the 1,100 species in the US. Here in The Woodlands, we’re doubly fortunate: not only are we replete with resources birds depend on – forests, edges, riparian zones, and native plants – we lie at a crossroads of eastern and western habitats mixed with subtropical and temperate ones. From this diverse habitat springs diverse bird life. Best of all for the local avian lover, we sit smack dab in the central flyway where spring and fall migrations amplify an already impressive diversity of species. 

You need not invest in a pair of hiking boots or high-powered binoculars to take in the spectacle. In fact, backyards and even apartment balconies offer ample opportunity to invite birds in for your enjoyment and their support.   

Start by providing the essentials: 

  • Native trees and plants – they’re far superior to non-natives for providing sustenance and they require less water and care to thrive. Check out these lists of native plants for The Woodlands.  
  • Clean feeders – supplementing what your native plants offer is a great idea as long as you provide quality feed and you clean feeders every couple weeks to prevent disease transmission. 
  • Water sources – birdbaths should be no more than 3 inches deep with sloped sides. Be sure to clean them regularly with soap or a vinegar solution.  
  • Nesting and shelter options – trees, tall grass, and shrubs provide cover for resting or nesting; supplement with bird houses and roost boxes suited to local species you want to attract. 
  • Use biocontrol – applying pesticides rids your landscape of an essential food source for most birds (seeds alone aren’t enough). Instead, invite birds in as a natural pest control.  

For more tips, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s page on attracting birds. 

The best habitats incorporate each of these elements. If you want to make your backyard even more inviting, keep it cat-free. Cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. annually, making cat predation the largest human-caused threat to birds. If you can’t keep your cat indoors at all times, bring them in at dusk and dawn, when birds are more active.  

For more resources on native plants for The Woodlands or to learn more about upcoming birding programs, contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 

Creature Feature: Bees and Wasps

While sitting outside on a summer afternoon you hear a low buzzing sound. On alert and ready to run you scan the area, anticipating an attack from an angry insect. A reaction many of us are guilty of, but why? How many times have you actually been stung and let’s be honest, could it have been avoided? Bees and wasps are feared by many but the majority of these highly beneficial insects are not aggressive and stings are easily avoided.  

Fast Facts

  • There are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world, 800 in Texas and 13 in Southeast Texas.
  • The annual value of native bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated to be $15 billion.
  • Vespa scooters are named after wasps – vespa means “wasp” in Italian.
  • Only female wasps and bees have stingers.

What do they eat?

Bees feed on nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants.

Solitary wasps feed mainly on nectar. Social wasps are omnivores, eating fruit, nectar and carrion such as dead insects.

What eats them?

Bees and wasps themselves are an important food source for thousands of species of birds, spiders, insects such as dragonflies and praying mantises, and larger predators such as skunks, foxes, weasels, mice, badgers and even bears.

Why do we need them?

Whether you think of bees and wasps as friend or foe, they play a critical role in the health of our environment. As pollinators, we rely on these insects to transfer pollen amongst many crops including cotton, fruit trees, melons, berries, vegetables and livestock crops such as alfalfa and clover. Even onions rely on pollinators for fertilization!

Beyond sustaining our food supply, they play a role in providing food for other wildlife. Bees and wasps are responsible for the production of seeds, nuts, berries and fruit that many other species depend on.

They also help provide shelter for those wildlife. By pollinating a variety of plants, trees and grasses they help maintain healthy forests and grasslands and provide nesting and protective spaces for other insects, birds and small mammals.

Bumblebees do not store large quantities of nectar and pollen, like honey bees. Instead they rely on a continuous food supply from spring to fall.

Bees

The most common varieties include carpenter, squash, leafcutter, sweat, mason and bumblebees.

There are a variety of places bees prefer to nest, depending on the species. 70% of all bee species dwell underground. The rest find their shelter in bare ground, weathered wood, or a honeycomb. When cleaning up around the yard, keep in mind that bees need a variety of places to live so leave some options for them to call home. Some bees are solitary dwellers (carpenter bees) and others live in social groups (bumblebees). The most familiar and well-known hive-dwelling bee is the honey bee.

A nest is the proper term to describe a colony that has created a natural cavity, usually hanging and exposed. A hive is a man-made structure used to house a honey bee nest.

The European honey bee has caught a lot of media attention in recent years due to a steep decline in population. Brought over in the 1600s, honey bees have spread to nearly every corner of North America. Due to pesticides, habitat loss, and disease, the population of honey bees has declined nearly 60% in the last 50 years.

Beekeeping is permitted within the boundaries of The Woodlands Township. State regulations do apply. The Texas Apiary Inspection Service (TAIS) oversees the State regulations regarding beekeeping.

Wasps

Paper wasps, Mud Daubers and Yellowjackets are some of the wasps you may encounter around the home. Distinct color patterns, smoother, thinner bodies, and a reputation for ill-temperament distinguish wasps from their more beloved counterpart, bees. That bad reputation, though, is not entirely deserved.

True, an un-barbed stinger allows a wasp to sting repeatedly (a honey bee must leave its stinger in the victim, causing it to die shortly after). However, the majority of the time, wasps will sting only when they or their nests are threatened. If you keep a safe distance from nests and don’t swat (this only excites them more) you’ve nothing to worry about. If you find yourself under attack, cover your head and run away quickly into a building or protected area.

Did you know that wasp venom contains a pheromone that causes other wasps to become more aggressive? A good reason not to swat at one near its nest or other wasps.

Wasps are one of the most beneficial insects when it comes to controlling pest populations. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed on by a species of wasp, either for a meal or as a host for its parasitic larvae. So, having wasps in your garden just may solve your tomato hornworm problem!

Removal

If your wasp or bee population has gotten a little too comfortable around the house, taking up residence in a wall of your home or storage shed, the best solution is to have the hive removed by a licensed structural pest control operator (the Texas Department of Agriculture maintains a list).

Spraying or improper removal most often results in the site being re-inhabited. Lingering pheromones and honeycomb residue will draw them back making proper sealing of access points a critical step. Licensed operators will also work with a local hive owner to relocate bees before treating the nest. Many will not relocate wasps. Instead, the wasps are exterminated and the nest is removed.

Bees and wasps are a critical component of a healthy ecosystem. They benefit the local gardener, the commercial farmer, and all of us who enjoy a cup of coffee, chocolate bars, or fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, their populations have seen a significant decline in the last few decades. If you enjoy the ‘fruits’ of their labor, help them out by providing native nectar plants, some shelter, and most importantly, eliminating the use of pesticides at home. These beneficial insects will show their gratitude in the form of fewer pests in your garden next spring.

For more information, check out these resources:

Creature Feature: Nonvenomous Snakes

Spring is here and so are the snakes. Taking advantage of increasing temperatures, our native Texas snakes are more active this time of year as they emerge out of hibernation in search of food and mates for breeding season. Snakes are more active when their prey is active, so spring and summer provide a buffet of frogs, rodents and other critters for snakes to eat. Chances are you may encounter a snake along a pathway, in your yard or at a local park. Good news is that all but three of the snakes commonly found in The Woodlands are nonvenomous.  

Let’s get acquainted 

Most snake species are shy and generally keep out of sight. They travel alone and prefer brush, rocks and woodpiles. Multiple snakes will share a den for winter hibernation, emerging in late February through early March. They are active during the day in spring and fall and at night during the summer to avoid the intense heat.  

All snakes are strictly carnivorous. The type of prey varies by the species and may include mice, rats, frogs, birds, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, insects, eggs, snails, scorpions and smaller snakes. Aquatic species, like the Diamondback water snake, also eat fish, crustaceans and amphibians. 

Snakes play an integral role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem by helping keep prey populations in check. For example, controlling the rodent population results in the reduction of common diseases like hantavirus, lymphocytic chorio-meningitis and salmonellosis.  

Preventing Snake Bites 

Most snakes in The Woodlands are harmless and an important part of the ecosystem, especially in controlling rodents. Snake bites are usually the result of them being surprised or cornered and are easily avoided with a few precautions. Because most snakes live on or near the ground, the majority of bites happen around the ankle. About 99% of all bites occur below the knee.   

SAFETY TIPS: 

  • Wear protective clothing; fangs are sharp but break easily and almost never penetrate leather shoes or boots. Long-sleeved shirts and pants will help further reduce your risk. 
  • Watch where you step, sit down and put your hands (never blindly into a hole). 
  • Avoid stepping over a log without first seeing what is on the other side. If you must move a log, use a long stick or garden tool first, to ensure snakes are not near. 
  • Use a flashlight when moving about at night. 

AROUND THE HOME: 

  • Keep the grass short, shrubs trimmed, and flowerbeds free from debris. 
  • Limit wood and brush piles and keep them away from the residence. 
  • Keep storage sheds and garages as neat as possible. 
  • Treat overturned boats, plant pots, tarps and similar objects as potential shelter for snakes. 

Snake Encounters and Recommended Responses  

Removal – Who to contact 

When removing wildlife from your private property, it is best to call a professional.  

  • Montgomery County: Woodlands Snake Removal, Nathan Wells: 346-218-0279 
  • Harris County: Texas Snakes & More, Clint Pustejovsky: 713-934-7668 

Keep in mind that living in a densely forested area means that you may encounter snakes at local parks, ponds and along trails. Follow the recommended responses above during an encounter and avoid handling any wildlife. Snakes are a valuable asset to the health of our forest and we don’t want to remove them from their natural home. 

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