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: 

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. 

Want more information? 

Creature Feature: Opossums

Opossum or possum, however you pronounce it, we’re talking about one cool marsupial. Prehensile tails and opposable thumbs equip them for skillful climbing. They help rid our lawns and woodlands of grubs, ticks and other damaging insects, clean our roadsides of disease-spreading carrion, and they make great parents, to boot. Read on for more cool facts about our neighbors, Didelphis virginiana, whose origins trace back more than 65 million years!  

Fast Facts: 

  • The only marsupial (pouched mammal) in North America 
  • Male opossums are called jacks and females are called jills. Babies are called joeys. 
  • ‘Playing possum’ is a real defense used to confuse a possible predator. 
As they grow, offspring emerge from the mother’s pouch and will cling to the mother for up to two months as they continue to develop

What do they look like? 

  • Up to 30 inches long and weigh about 15 pounds 
  • Cone shaped nose with a pink tip, hairless ears, short legs and a long hair-less tail.  
  • Fur color is variable from pale gray to black. 

What do they eat? 

Opossums are omnivores who eat primarily animal matter such as insects, earthworms, small mammals, snakes, birds, fruits and vegetables. They are also amazingly immune to snake venom, so rattlesnakes and cottonmouths make the menu too. If available, they will dine on pet food, garbage cans and bird feeders. 

What eats them? 

  • Predators include owls, coyotes, hawks, snakes, foxes and feral cats.  
  • An estimated 19 million opossums are killed by vehicles every year in the United States. 

Why do we need them? 

Opossums are extremely beneficial to the environment. They eat a variety of critters considered pests or vermin by clearing your yard of roaches, mice and rats. In one season an opossum can consume about 5,000 ticks, helping minimize tick-borne diseases such Lyme disease.  Also known to eat carrion which minimizes disease in the environment.

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

Creature Feature: Great Egret

Egret
Like a ghostly apparition
the egret did appear
beautiful in its white paleness
though almost unaware
that two strangers were viewing
such a beautiful bird
speechless and in awe
that such a situation
could hardly be put into words.

G Paul Fisher

Whether you know it as the common egret, large egret, great white heron or Great Egret the stunning Adrea alba graces the skies and waters of The Woodlands and has a wonderful story to tell.  

Fast Facts 

  1. Second largest heron in North America, next to the Great Blue Heron. 
  1. Has four subspecies spread across five continents. 
  1. Great Egrets were decimated by plume hunters in the late 1800’s; populations plunged by 95 percent. Their plight spawned the nation-wide bird conservation movement. Legal protection has resulted in a remarkable comeback. 
  1. Symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was founded to protect bird populations.  

What do they look like? 

  • All white with black legs and a yellow bill.  
  • Weigh only 2 pounds despite reaching a height of 41 inches with a wingspan of 55 inches. 
  • During breeding season (late December to early July) the patch of skin on the face turns lime green and long plumes, called aigrettes, grow down the back.  

What do they eat?  

  • Mostly fish. Will also eat crustaceans, frogs, lizards, snakes, and insects.  
  • Hunts in shallow water, impaling prey on its long, sharp beak. 

What eats them? 

  • They have no real predators as adults. Most would-be predators avoid such a large bird. However, raccoons, hawks, owls and snakes raid their nests for eggs and chicks. 

Why do we need them? 

  • Great Egrets play an important role in balancing aquatic and riparian ecosystems by controlling amphibian, insect, and small mammal populations.  

Want more information? 

Within The Woodlands, Great Egrets have at times created large nesting sites in residential areas. Abandoned nests can be removed to deter egrets from nesting in your trees, however active nests are protected by the Federal Migratory Birds Treaty Act and cannot be removed.  

Learn how to effectively and legally address nesting egrets by visiting the Wildlife Section at www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment.   

Nests are built high in trees to avoid predators. Males select the location, but it is common to return to the same nesting site year after year.  

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