By Mark Fike
Sometimes those of us that live in rural areas or even suburban areas take things in our immediate environment for granted. Take for instance the insects or life around the house. Because I live well off the road and away from paved surfaces, I have all kinds of critters thriving within steps of my door.
This afternoon when I drove up to the house, movement caught my eye. A Five-Lined Skink dashed up the wall of our house and disappeared behind the butterfly bush. It was large enough that the laden branches on the butterfly bush moved noticeably.
A few steps from the grape trellis I saw movement, but could not zero in on the culprit. I looked for several minutes while remaining still but still could not find what moved. Knowing that the animal had to be still in place I moved ever so slightly. Bingo! The lizard ran off as a blur and dashed up a nearby oak tree. Then I saw another one on the trellis. Upon careful inspection after a very tedious approach, I identified the reptile as an Eastern Fence Lizard.
The Eastern Fence Lizard is found as far north as New York, west to the Mississippi (and beyond), south to deep Texas and Florida. It is absent from the New Orleans region of Louisiana and southern Florida though.
These spiny lizards are rough to touch like sandpaper and measure between four and seven inches. Truly the largest specimen I have ever encountered was six inches long and very dark-colored. They generally tend to be gray with black markings on their backs. Their tails can be darker and they can range from a dark brown, almost black to a light gray. Males that are ready to breed have bluish patches that are beautiful in color on their undersides.
In my area, they are never far from a tree and really love woodpiles. They can find food and shelter in such a place and thrive there. At night, the lizards will find a hole, crevice, or other places of refuge to hide in until morning.
Their prey consists of insects of all types. They use sight as their primary method of finding prey and often sit very still and then ambush beetles, flies, ants, moths, and spiders.
Dry environments are ideal for these docile lizards. Birds, cats, and snakes prey upon them. When chased, they will dart to the opposite side of a tree much like squirrels do when hunted.
Females are larger than males but have shorter tails on average. The females will lay several eggs to as many as a dozen and a half eggs in late spring or early summer. The
eggs take until late summer to hatch and the young look like miniature versions of their parents. The juveniles are the first to come out in the spring and last to go to hibernation.
What I enjoy about these rough-skinned lizards is that they eat lots of bugs and particularly enjoy ant eggs. They also are very docile once caught. While extremely fast and tough to catch, they will often sit still on your shirt, hat or shoulder after released. They don’t often try to bite you as a Five-Lined Skink will do.
I recall very fondly catching them as a young boy near our woodpile. When I had to cut the field, it was really bad for me because the deer flies followed in droves and dive-bombed my head and hat. I would try to catch a fence lizard in our woodpile and put it on my hat while bush-hogging the field. I don’t know if the lizards ever really caught any flies, but it seemed like I was bothered a little less and I had a little buddy riding along with me while I cut the field.
Many times, I would forget I put a lizard on my hat and go to supper only to have my mom jump as she saw me enter the house with my friend. One time I even drove to town to the bait shop to get some lures and kept wondering why I was getting weird stares.
I found out when I got to the river and took off my hat to put my smallmouth lures on it. The five-inch fence lizard was sitting there as if he belonged. For the record, I did not allow him to become homeless. He rode around while I waded and fished. When I got home, I put him in the woodpile again. If lizards could talk, he certainly would tell of his “world” travels that day!
If you have plenty of fence lizards around, consider it a blessing. They eat a lot of insects and they are never a problem to have around.