Lizards in the Garden

Among my most favorite animals in nature will be the lizards, and part of this fascination may stem from time I spent living near the Mojave Desert areas in southern California. While dry deserts are often referred to as “waste lands” by those unfamiliar with them, they can in fact be absolutely loaded with life, with a tremendous variety of plants and animals. Lizards, in particular, seem to be everywhere and in great variety, from the amazingly fast ring-necked lizards to the fat chuckwallas, which cram themselves into crevices to hide, and give off a loud “hiss” as they inhale air to jam themselves in even tighter as a defense against their enemies. I would often see the spiny horned lizards, but have never had the good fortune to run across either of the only two venomous lizards in North America, the Mexican Beaded Lizard and the Gila Monster.

In my home in northern California we always had populations of the Western Fence Lizard, which would sit on boards sunning itself and doing “pushups” with its front legs. Once in awhile we’d spot a Skink, with its brilliant blue tail, an attraction the lizard would gladly lose in the mouth of a predator if losing the tail allowed the rest of the lizard to scamper away safely. In this short article about lizards in your landscape the blue-tailed skink is one of the kinds that is worthy of mention, and I’ll get to that right away.

All lizards are carnivores, feeding primarily on insects and other small bits of meat they find, such as worms. Some larger species are capable of tackling even rodents or small snakes, but for our backyards they help us out by consuming many of the insects we prefer not to deal with. Without a doubt lizards fit any description of beneficial, and with the exception of the two venomous kinds found only in our southwest deserts they are nearly completely harmless. I have had one or two of the large Alligator lizards clamp down on my finger with their strong jaws, and this didn’t feel so hot, but there is no venom involved and they would do this only in response to a threat to them. Various cats that I’ve owned over the years seem to be able to overlook this tendency of the alligator lizard to bite, because I have found a great many of the lizards without tails. This appendage is easily lost by many lizards as their means for escaping, and over time a new tail will grow back.

It’s unfortunate that so much misinformation circulates through the Internet, and one recent myth involved those blue-tailed skinks. As the story went, the tail is toxic, and if pets such as cats or dogs eat the tail of a skink it can cause the pet to go into convulsions that could be fatal. I have even received extremely irate letters from homeowners who believed this to be true, berating me for suggesting that such lizards are beneficial and harmless to us. Veterinarians have pointed out that there is no truth to this myth, and that the convulsions in these pets was caused not by eating lizard tails, but by chemical imbalances in their systems. The role of the skink as a desirable animal in our landscape is preserved…..thank goodness. Since you can easily find websites that advocate the view that skink tails are toxic, please also look for those websites that provide factual information that will dispute these silly claims . It pays to question what you hear.

One of the most noticed lizards, and one that I forgot to mention in my introduction, is geckos. These amazing little animals can be seen running all over the walls inside homes or businesses, particularly at night, and rapidly gulping down any insects they find on the walls or ceilings. They are common in tropical areas such as Hawaii or Florida, but many different kinds of very colorful species can be found across the United States in the southern states. Again, these are harmless animals that provide great benefit, but they also can be a bit of a nuisance. Some folks are just plain intolerant of large animals running across the walls of their bedroom or kitchen, and would prefer that the geckos stay outside. These lizards also make a distinctive “clicking” or peeping sound that may be a bit annoying when you are trying to get to sleep.

Lizards are Reptiles, along with animals like snakes and turtles, and as reptiles they are cold-blooded. They are unable to regulate their body temperature the way mammals can, and rely instead on warming up by sunning themselves or resting on warm surfaces, or cooling themselves in hot weather by hiding in the shade or burrowing in the soil. Growth is accomplished by periodic shedding of their outer skin, sometimes 3 or 4 times each year with the skin coming off in large sections. Reproduction starts with eggs laid by the female, and some species then abandon the eggs, allowing the newly emerged baby lizards to fend for themselves, and some species have a maternity instinct, and will remain with their eggs until they hatch to protect them from egg-eating animals.

Lizards can be fairly long-lived animals, ranging from just a few years as with the smaller Fence Lizards, to as much as 28 years with that large Mexican Beaded Lizard. I suppose if we considered alligators to be a kind of lizard we’d have to extend that up to the potential for 56 years of life. In order to grow that large and live that long they need to eat a lot of food, and since their food is primarily insects we need to thank them for their habits in our yard. Skinks, for example, consume great numbers of winged termites as they swarm from the soil. The desert-dwelling Horned Lizards rely heavily on eating large numbers of the stinging Harvester Ants which are so numerous in the western deserts. In your backyard the food will consist of whatever becomes available, such as earwigs, pillbugs, small beetles, moths or grubs on the soil, etc. These animals truly benefit our gardens while posing no real potential for harm.

Lizards in the Garden

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, as the saying goes, and this bit of wisdom can apply to animals as well. What some people find highly desirable in their gardens other folks may just not want to have around. Even our beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, can become a nuisance when they choose to spend the winters inside our structures in huge numbers. So, while I may find the presence of geckos running around on walls a nice curiosity, homeowners who live with them all the time may prefer these animals just stayed outside. Controlling even beneficial animals can be required at times. For lizards you will not find any pesticides available for their control, and likely never will. The benefits of these predators are just too great for any manufacturer to want to spend the time or money developing products to kill them. You may at some point find some repellent materials that could have an effect at keeping them away, but even that seems to be unavailable at this time. There is no need to spend your money or your time on ultrasonic repelling devices, for these have been very thoroughly tested by independent researchers who unanimously agree they have no repelling effect on “vermin”.

If you have lizards in your garden or your home your only control measure really is to take away the reasons they are there, and these reasons will be food and harborage. We won’t dwell here on how to make lizards stay away from your outdoor gardens, because that really is counter-productive to a healthy garden. We should encourage them to be there. What we do want to accomplish, though, is to keep lizards out of our homes, and this can be done without the use of any chemicals. Since the lizard really can’t earn a living inside our homes – there just isn’t enough “buggy” food there to support them – the only reason they would normally enter would be to hide. The proper management program for keeping lizards out of the home involves the practice of “exclusion”.

A properly sealed home is the key to several goals, including maintaining heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. Sealing the gaps around doors and windows, and any other openings that lead from the outside to the inside, helps to accomplish this energy conservation. It also helps keep critters from finding their way inside the house, including into the attic or into the crawl space below your home. You want to keep bugs out of the wall void spaces too, because from there they’ll easily find a way to enter the living areas through electrical outlets, vents, etc. You’ll need to do a very careful inspection of the outside of the home, and probably feel overwhelmed by the prospect of closing off all the openings you’ll find, but if you tackle it the same way you’d eat an elephant…… one little bite at a time…… you can get it done. By permanently closing off openings to your home you’ll keep out bugs, bats, birds, rodents, snakes, lizards, and pretty much everything but the family kids, cats, and dogs.

How do you accomplish this? Well, the local home improvement stores sell everything you’ll need, and you begin by ensuring the screens leading to attics and crawlspaces are in good repair. The mesh may not exclude the smaller bugs, but it will keep out rodents. You also should look at the garage doors, for these notoriously have wide gaps under and around them, and there are metal strips that are easily attached to the bottoms of doors to eliminate that gap. Weather stripping can be applied to gaps around the sides or tops of doors to further eliminate them. You are liable to find wide gaps under the eaves of the home that lead right into the attic, and these can be closed with weather stripping, copper mesh cloth, or even caulking for narrower gaps. There are foam products in aerosol cans that expand and harden once you place them in a hole or gap, and they then can be trimmed off flush and painted. All of these materials provide that permanent closure of the potential pest entry point.

Caulking tubes may be your best friend, and you can quickly run a bead of caulk along gaps around door framing, window framing, and around pipes or wires that poke through your stucco or siding. After a day of letting it harden it can be painted to match the wall colors. For lizards and snakes the more important places to pay attention to will be near the soil, but for many kinds of bugs, rodents, or bats you’ll want to close off the upper openings too. All of these practices provide multiple benefits, they keep unwanted animals out of your home, and they do so without harming these animals in any way. It is not our goal to eliminate insects or wildlife from the outdoors, only to keep them out of our homes.