Armadillos find St. Louis nice place to settle
By KEN LEISER - Lee News Service Writer
FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS - Bernice Warning was enjoying a Sunday morning on her backyard patio in Fairview Heights a few weeks back when she saw movement in a flower bed.
What emerged was a gray-silver, armored creature she figured was about 15 inches from the tip of its long snout to the end of its pencil-like tail. Warning went to fetch her husband, but by the time she returned, the armadillo was already waddling across the grass to her neighbor's yard.
"I wish I had a camera," she said.
Armadillos began pushing into southern Missouri in the early 1980s, but sightings have been rare in the St. Louis area until recently. The animals had long been associated with Southern states but have shown they can adapt to winter temperatures in central Missouri and Southern Illinois.
"They are here to stay," said professor Lynn Robbins of Missouri State University.
Earlier this year, a Ladue, Mo., woman was surprised to spot one of the nine-banded armadillos digging up part of her yard, said Tom Meister, a wildlife damage biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The football-size creatures have big claws and a long nose, and they feast on beetles, grubs and earthworms. It is said they can smell insects through six inches of soil. Their digging handiwork has left some yards looking as if a "plow had gone through," Meister said.
"They are becoming more and more common," Meister said, particularly in Crawford and Washington counties in Missouri, on the fringes of the St. Louis area.
Because the armadillo is a nonnative species, Meister said, there aren't many restrictions preventing a Missouri property owner from shooting or trapping one suspected of causing damage, although it rarely goes that far.
The number of armadillo sightings has been growing in Southern Illinois in the past five years, said Clay Nielsen, a research scientist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Since reaching Texas in the mid-1800s, the armadillo has pushed into the Southeast and now the lower Midwest.
"It has been a slow, gradual spread over a 150-year period," Nielsen said.
Robbins' research shows that the northern march has averaged several miles a year.
Despite initial concerns that the armadillo was a threat to quail and turkey eggs, Robbins determined that the armadillo caused no damage to native wildlife. In fact, other animals - wood rats, box turtles and snakes - use the armadillo tunnels.
Armadillos don't hibernate and continue to feed on insects through the winter. But heavy snowpacks, extreme cold and lack of rainfall make it harder to reach their food supply. Some experts say that likely will prevent them from pushing farther north.
Robbins figured heavy snows several years ago would have knocked the population back, but the armadillos were present after the snow melted.
So far, Robbins said, they have weathered Missouri winters by sticking to places where ice and snow aren't so heavy, such as the edges of streams and beneath large trees. They rustle beneath leaf litter to find bugs, even in cold weather.
The critters are deceptively fast and can jump three to four feet into the air when startled. The most reliable evidence of their arrival is the occasional sight of an armadillo that has been hit by a car.
Cindy Bohnenstiehl, executive director of the Wildlife Center of Missouri in Ballwin, said two armadillos had been brought to the rescue and rehabilitation center in the past year. One was already dead; the second was stabilized but did not survive its injuries, she said.
Two years ago, Missouri Department of Transportation maintenance workers in Franklin County weren't seeing armadillos among the road kill they clear from highways. Now they see about one a week, said spokeswoman Linda Wilson.
By contrast, maintenance workers in the Department of Transportation's 12-county region near Springfield, Mo., see them "every day," said spokesman Bob Edwards. The sightings seem to increase each year.
"And you don't see them live very often," he said.
Ken Leiser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (314) 340-8215.