I was in town at 6am this morning, watering “the hill” and thinking about the first day we set the flowerbed in place. That was the one and only time in the last twenty years that I’ve seen a horned toad. Now for those of you who have NEVER seen a horned toad and think it is some mythical creature like the unicorn, I offer these photos as proof of its existence. I had my camera with me that day to document the building of our flower bed, and by lucky coincidence looked down to see this horned toad in the grass nearby. A horned toad, or more accurately, horned lizard, is “any of several small harmless insectivorous lizards of the western U.S. and Mexico having hornlike spines”. Not to argue with Mr. Webster, but I think the horned lizard is a symbol of the changing environment of America. It’s a clue to what’s wrong with our present and a glimpse of what our future holds if we’re not more careful.
Let’s pause for a simple biology lesson. And I do mean simple. I’m certainly not “lab coat” material, if you know what I mean. However, I am a curious, contemplative person. I wondered why the little lizards I spent so many childhood summers chasing are no longer around in such abundance. I wondered why the one in my photo was the only one I’ve seen in twenty years. I found many of the answers on the Horned Lizard Conservation Society website.
Horned lizards eat red harvester ants. In fact, I learned that 65% of their diet is red harvester ants. Now, if you’re thinking “I don’t know one dumb ant from another” THAT is the answer and the problem all rolled into one. We’ve been absolutely plagued and bedeviled in this area by the imported fire ant- a totally different critter. Every WalMart and farm supply store in the county has at least a dozen baits and poisons for fire ants. Every group of gardeners has a different homemade treatment for the pests. But what happens is that very few people actually know the difference between one ant or another and they indiscriminately kill ALL ants.
That’s why I said that the horned lizard is a symbol of the changing environment of America. As we “civilize” more and more acres of wild countryside, we kill off more of the little nuisance creatures- ants, roaches, beetles, flies, bees, grasshoppers- that get in our way and make our lives uncomfortable. However, we forget that those creatures- nothing more than pests to us- represent survival for something else. Okay, so you don’t like horned lizards and you don’t care if they eat ants. From the website I learned that “In addition to horned lizards, other lizards will prey on harvesters. Various frogs and toads will too. Birds such as chickens, mockingbirds, plovers, flycatchers, cardinals, shrikes, blue jays, woodpeckers, and doves all eat harvesters.” Which of those do you want to get rid of? We miss the point sometimes that every creature is a part of the life cycle of the entire planet.
Did you see the recent report on the effect of global warming on the Napa Valley vineyards? Did you read the Newsweek article about the “New Greening of America”? It seems that we’ve all become a little more aware of the subtle environmental changes taking place around us. But species extinction isn’t subtle, and that’s what we may get if we don’t start being more discriminate with our poisons. For me, the horned lizard is a reminder not to kill every creature that I perceive as a threat to my garden. I’ve never been much of an “organic gardener”, but even an old gardener can change her ways.
As I write this a woodpecker is enjoying the last couple of peaches hanging on the tree. The peaches had a few worms this year because we didn’t dust them or spray them with insecticides. We managed to get a good crop anyway. And I can watch the woodpecker enjoy his feast, knowing he won’t get sick just because I wanted better fruit. Maybe if we’re all a little more careful I’ll look out my window one day and see another horned lizard. I hope so.