The Immigrants in My Backyard

I admit it; I have long been angry at the immigrants living in my backyard.

When I moved my family back to Florida over twenty years ago, I was thrilled by the sight of the beautiful green anoles (lizards) scampering over the white stucco walls of our house.

Green Anole, from Wikimedia Commons.

But over the years the native green lizards have all but disappeared, replaced by the drab brown lizards which immigrated somehow from Cuba and the Bahamas.

We can’t get Cuban rum or Cuban cigars, but we have Cuban lizards. How did that happen?

Anyway, it is a well proven scientific fact (see pages 12-28 of the linked publication) that when Cuban brown lizards move into a territory, the Green lizard population plummets. Part of the reason is because the larger brown lizards eat the young of native Green Anoles. That alone is enough to make me angry with them; although human anger is better directed towards human atrocities than against instinctive animal behavior. I know that, as a scientist, but still there is the annoyance I cannot quench at the loss of the Greens who, after all, belong here.

One particularly cold morning when the temperature had uncharacteristically dropped to 20° F overnight, I found a Brown Cuban Anole had crawled up to our front porch, trying, I suppose, to get as close to the house’s heat as possible. And there he lay, stiff and dead.

I actually rejoiced in the immigrant’s vulnerability. I remember thinking, “Bet it doesn’t get this cold in Cuba, does it? See, you should have stayed;” as if that frozen lizard had a choice in the matter.

As a matter of curiosity, and definitely not sympathy, I moved his stiff body out on the sidewalk where the warming sun rays were beginning to fall. I was thinking perhaps the local cats would like their lizard breakfast with the chill taken off it.

Imagine my surprise when I found 20 minutes later that the lizard was moving, and a few minutes after that, had managed to scurry off into the garden. Well, you have to admire toughness; and who doesn’t enjoy a surprise?

In the past couple of weeks these little guys’ toughness and their surprising lack of fear has helped me to appreciate these invaders, just a bit.

He’s hard to see; a good survival strategy.

I have been pushing my physical limits digging drainage trenches through root infested sandy soil. Much to my surprise, the Brown Cubans have been watching me, closely. Apparently my disturbance of the ground stirs up insects and small worms which the Anoles then feed upon with lightning quick forays into the digging zone.

What surprised me, however, is just how close they approach the digging. The most extreme example of lizard fearlessness was when I used a string trimmer to mow down ground-cover so I could uncover an outdoor sump pump. A Brown Cuban was hanging upside down on the stucco wall of the house, barely a foot away, with clippings from the cutter flinging at high speed into the wall where the lizard remained still but vigilant. He was completely unperturbed by the machine noise and the constant barrage of vine debris. Tough little critter, I thought. photo (36)

Apparently, he had only one thing in mind;  the prospect for the sudden appearance of food stirred up by the string trimmer.

During another phase of the project, what seemed like the same large Anole perched himself on any high elevation available so he could watch my digging. Every once in a while he would hop down into the disturbed dirt to snag a morsel, seeming unconcerned by the fact that a steel shovel was working the earth.

On one occasion he ran 18 inches or so right up to my foot to snag some insect I had failed to see. At the foot of the giant —  yes, that little guy was fearless.

The Foreman lizard, keeping a watchful eye on my work.

OK, I had to admit, no Green Anole had ever done that before.

As I continued to work one hot Saturday, covered in sweat, I began to enjoy my constant companion. So much so that I picked up a camera and started taking photos of him, without the flash of course. I didn’t want to blind him.

On one shot the flash went off unexpectedly just inches from his face. He bolted. After 10 minutes or so, when he was nowhere to be seen, I actually felt bad, thinking that I’d scared him, or worse, blinded him. Yes, I know it was strange, that the Brown immigrant hater, me, actually felt remorse for my carelessness with the camera.

Finally, after another 30 minutes or so, he showed up again, as if nothing had happened. And with that, I felt forgiven.

Obviously, my hard attitude towards these immigrants has softened. The more time I spend with them, the more I appreciate their positive qualities: fearlessness, willingness to appreciate me as a food provider. They are in a word, opportunistic. And that, I believe, gives them  an advantage over the more timid native Green Anoles.

As for the Cubans feeding on the natives? Well, they get as good as they give. Neighborhood house cats, who are certainly not native either, feed nightly on the Cubans. I cringe when I watch a cat flip an Anole, of any color, into the air and down it head first in a single gulp. That is the way of nature, and the fact that I like it or not has no influence at all on the outcome.











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