Armadillo in field

The proliferation of exotic-to-us, nine-banded armadillos is making the hard-shelled creatures increasingly routine across western Kentucky.

Having novel critters show up in your yard brings home the reality that species have arrived.

Whether certain animals are formerly common, depleted or extirpated and somehow back again, or perhaps they are just totally new to the neighborhood, when they pop up where you live, it is a marvel at least at first.

Those of us who have already enjoyed a lengthy shelf life should recall that a fair amount of wildlife around here routinely now would have been a shocker to behold in earlier days. Hey, the times have been a changin’.

Around my own domicile, creatures that once ranged from rare to non-existent in these parts have put in appearances. At one time, experiencing deer, wild turkeys, river otters, wood ducks, giant Canada geese, bald eagles or coyotes in the yard all would have been unlikely or impossible. No more.

That’s obviously changed as some species have rebounded, populations of others have been re-established and others (coyotes particularly) have expanded their range here.

I’ve made another, possibly dubious gain. The northern expansion of nine-banded armadillos — perking through western Kentucky and beyond for years — has finally come home to roost. Or would that be to burrow? I now have achieved armadillo activity in my own yard.

Armadillos and I go way back. They used to knock around under a house in which I lived, but that was long, long ago and far, far south of here.

Even then and there, I recognized that these varmints are pretty weird.

The nine-banded armadillo (our only subspecies) is a short-legged mammal with an unusual armored upper body and a narrow head with a pointy muzzle and prominent, pointed ears.

The armored torso is sort of a grayish-brown and barren of hair. The varmint has a smattering of coarse guard hairs on its lower body. It also has a bare, reptilian-like tail.

The armadillo’s body is about 16-17 inches long with a tail that adds another 14-15 inches. The armadillo is jokingly called a hard-shell ’possum, but the armored critter actually averages a little larger than the opossum. Armadillos range up to about 17 pounds.

As I think about it, the armadillo looks a little like what would happen if there was a love child produced in a fling between a ’possum and a snapping turtle, but that’s not very likely, huh?

The armadillo is a predator of sorts — but its prey is ants, grubs, beetles and worms. It sucks up various insect food through its anteater-like snout using a sticky tongue. The insectivore digs for its quarry with the stout claws on its feet.

The size of the armadillo keeps it from being prey to a lot of smaller predators. About the only effective killer to take down this exotic animal is another self-imported predator, the coyote.

That may explain some of the armadillo’s success in range expansion — it has few enemies in nature, and humans for the most part don’t pursue them. Their worst fear here probably is the motor vehicle.

Armadillos don’t negotiate roads too well — and their natural fright response of jumping straight up in the air tends to make them all the more vulnerable to blunt trauma from speeding bumpers and undercarriages.

Sort of like a turtle, an armadillo acting defensively can roll up into a ball, tucking itself mostly within its armored shell. This may foil some predators, but like jumping, it doesn’t play well for encounters with cars and trucks.

A female armadillo produces a single litter of four identical (quadruplets) offspring each year. That is not a huge outpouring of young, but the reproduction is balanced with a long lifespan. Armadillos can survive up to 20 years.

An armadillo can be sexually mature at 2 years of age, so a female that lives a full life can turn out dozens of youngsters over that time.

Armadillos have been present here to some extent for several years now, so with a breeding population established and regular reproduction, it’s not surprising that the numbers of them have steadily increased as locally-born critters themselves have reproduced and the population expanded geometrically.

At first, armadillo sightings — usually as a roadkill — were occurring just occasionally in scattered hot spots. Now, they are apparently all over western Kentucky. They have been filling in the population gaps.

They hail from the deep South, decades ago spreading from Mexico into Texas and gradually expanding around the Gulf Coast deep into Florida. From there, they leached northward until most of Dixie was armadillo infested.

Biologists once figured that colder, longer winters farther north were a barrier to the expansion of unfurred armadillos in our direction. Whether the hard-shell varmints adapted or just became willing to suffer more in winter months, the temperature barrier was broken little by little.

The critters over several years immigrated and bred their way northward. They seemed to overtake Missouri at our latitude first. Yet, soon enough the oddball mammals worked their way up through northern Alabama and Mississippi, then through Tennessee, and here they are.

It is hard to say if the armadillo impact here will be significant. As insectivores, they do not appear a major threat. Yet, some people already are troubled by the digging associated with them.

In the long run, we may not like them. But we’ve got them, and I’m guessing they’re here to stay.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.