The armadillos have arrived
North Carolina is now home to a growing armadillo population. How did that happen?
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I’ve always known two indisputable facts about armadillos. One: They’re kinda cute, especially when they roll up into a ball after they get scared. And two: They’re mostly a thing you find in South and Central America, but also in Texas. Well turns out, like the rest of America, they’re moving to North Carolina.
This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. The first sighting of an armadillo in this state occurred way back in 2007. Now, though, they’re no longer tourists. I discovered this thanks to a pair of tweets from reader Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political science professor and amateur armadillo sleuth:
Armadillos are here, folks. They’re significant enough that they got a whole report from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, but not quite significant enough to merit their own state armadillo biologist. Hence, the report was written by an expert in black bears and other furbearers.
In it, the state says it’s received 440 confirmed and unconfirmed reports of armadillos over the last 14 years. They’ve been spotted in 57 counties. And now, people are starting to see more than one at a time:
In four western counties, we have been able to confirm observations of multiple armadillos observed together, which is indicative of an established population. In June 2019, we received our first confirmed report of multiple armadillos with two observed together in Jackson County. This was followed by a confirmed observation of two armadillos together in Macon County in August 2019. In June 2020, we received a video of 3 armadillos foraging on the side of the road in Cherokee County. A month later, we received confirmation of two armadillos together in Transylvania County. In addition, we have received regular reports of armadillo observations around Cullowhee and Western Carolina University from 2017 through 2020. In 2019, we received our first report (unconfirmed) of an armadillo pup in Randolph County.
As you can see from this map, most of them are out there west of Asheville:
I, for one, cannot wait to hear an Asheville person complain about gentrification after they spot an armadillo in line at White Duck Taco.
Our state wildlife folks started the NC Armadillo Project in 2019, and they now have enough data to track armadillo expansion across North Carolina. What they’re finding is that armadillos are coming here on their own instead of being smuggled en masse by humans. Why? Climate change. Armadillos don’t have great natural insulation, and can’t dig for food when the ground is frozen, so they don’t do well in places where the temperature dips below freezing for long stretches. But because North Carolina winters are getting milder, armadillos are starting to expand their habitats further northward.
So yes, climate change is mostly bad and it’s unleashing the armadillo horde upon western North Carolina. Counterpoint: LOOKIT THE CUTE LITTLE ARMADILLOS. I wouldn’t snuggle one, but they are sort of adorable? Kinda? Who, then, could possible be against them? You guessed it: Homeowners’ associations. Armadillos dig, and they’ll do a number on your perfectly manicured lawn.
That brings us to the second tweet, which mentioned a story that The Guardian recently wrote from the small mountain resort town of Sapphire, North Caroina, out west in Transylvania County. In it, a guy named Jason Bullard has been deputized by nearby homeowners, who will pay him $100 for every armadillo he shoots. He’s since killed dozens, and has learned that armadillo huntin’ ain’t easy:
The task has been learned hastily on the job. The standard .22 rifles Bullard used on the first armadillos didn’t seem to kill them outright. One of the creatures bounded away in a freakish, kangaroo-like hop, leaving an astonished Bullard flailing. The armadillos give off a sort of loamy grey color at night, a shone light absorbed by their bodies, rather than reflected in their eyes.
“It’s like hunting aliens,” said Bullard, who is more used to hunting feral pigs. “We know nothing about them. We can’t seem to kill them easily. They show up unexpectedly. And their numbers have just exploded.”
Even though Bullard has night-vision goggles and an armadillo-sniffing dog, he still often comes up empty. “They can roam a range of 25 acres, and they are the size of a football, and you have to find that in the dark,” he told The Guardian. “I have to manage expectations with homeowners.”
So when can you shoot an armadillo in North Carolina? Whenever you damn please. Armadillo hunting has no season here. But the hunter is right: They’re hard to kill. A nine-banded armadillo can’t really ball up like its cousins, so its main defense is to leap straight up, three to four feet in the air. That’s usually good, except when the thing that’s spooking an armadillo is a car. The animals can really mangle up a bumper.
One last thing: A quick search of Twitter shows that there are WAY more anecdoctal armadillo sightings in South Carolina than there are up here, which really, astrologically, lines up. South Carolina’s spiritual motto is “WTF?!” and everyone’s reaction down there seems to be “okay, weird, but okay.”
Last thing: Armadillos float!
Last last thing! An armadillo can give you leprosy! Probably not, but maybe!
So yes, armadillos are here. Yes, they’re kinda cute. Yes, they’re gonna be bad for your lawn. There’s a remote chance that they might give you leprosy. But look on the bright side, you can cook and eat the meat if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s gotta be better than possum.
If they can't survive freezing weather, why have they mostly been seen in WNC?