Each evening when I get home from work, I water my front south-facing garden beds and pots. It is a dry and sort of rocky landscape, which is cooked by the sun most of the day. Almost every evening, I am kept company by two resident Western Fence Lizards – one of which lives on the south (street) side of a low stucco wall edging my entry courtyard, and the other of which lives on the north (interior) side of it.
The south side lizard likes to hunt for food under the deer grass, salvia and manzanita and to bask on a round grey rock near the sidewalk. The north side lizard likes to hunt for food all along the stucco wall and in and behind overgrown foliage of a tall potted shrub rose. It basks in the sun on the stucco wall itself and along its stone cap.
I am not sure if they are male or female, but in my mind one is male – this one does a lot of posturing and push-ups when I come by, and one is female – this one is a little smaller and less showy. If and when they meet in the middle of the wall – they are very discrete about it.
In and around my tiny suburban garden in-progress, there are at least 3 Western Fence lizards that have companioned me over the past year. They are very reliably territorial, each in its own space when I come through. They are also full of personality that engages and interests me. They do not like the hose water, which attests to their predilection for sparse rather than lush, but not extreme desert conditions. While quite a few tiny “hatchling” lizards were abundant in mid-summer, they are now perhaps grown and gone to mark their own territories somewhere else. It is my belief that in doing what they do as lizards – eat insects, bask in the sun and sleep, they make my life and garden much more pleasant for me as a result of their company and an overall lower population of some of the insects that I am NOT crazy about in immediate proximity to me – mosquitoes and grasshoppers, for instance.
Granted they, the most common reptile in California, according to the California Interagency Wildlife Task Group (a group I am glad to know exists!), are also eating insects I might like, but they are simply maintaining their part in an overall balance on this little piece of land.
Reading up on the Western Fence Lizard in “Amphibians and Reptiles of Bidwell Park” by Jackson Shedd, I learned a little more about my lucky garden’s Lounge Of Lizards.
Officially Scleroporus occidentalis occidentalis, some of these lizards’ characteristics are apparent in their common names of blue-belly, spiny or swift lizards. They are noted for the blue marking on their undersides, particularly in males who will flash their colors to intimidate other males or impress females. The blue is kept hidden, however, from predators such as birds of prey and outdoor house cats, which can decimate their populations.
The slight lizards do love to bask, especially on heights – such as fence posts – throughout their range from sea level to over 10,000 feet throughout the inter-mountain west. As evidenced in their slower and less frequent showings in my garden at the end of October, they slow down and are dormant in winter – going into full hibernation in some areas. Diurnal, they can be seen on winter days that get warm enough.
They mate in spring and the female lays 1 – 3 clutches of 3 – 15 eggs each year. Females dig small pits in workable soil to lay their eggs, and the young hatch in mid-summer and do most of their growing in the first year of life. They do not breed until their second year.
Two remarkable adaptations of the Western Fence Lizard include their caudal autotomy – the ability to shed their tale when being attacked by a predator. The left-behind tale then reflexively wiggles around on the ground thereby distracting the predator while the lizard gets away. It takes some time and a lot of internal resources to regenerate a new tail, the storehouse of fat reserves for the creature. The new tail will be constructed of fat and cartilage, rather then bone.
Finally, and perhaps coolest of all in terms of benefits to us of these friends in the garden, Western Fence Lizards’ blood includes a substance that kills Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes lyme disease in ticks, significantly reducing the incidence of lyme disease in areas with healthy Western Fence Lizard populations.
PHOTO: Another common lizard that keep us company in our North State Gardens is the Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata). The Alligator Lizard is much less content to be caught and held, and will hiss as well as deliver a sharp bite.
I might spend a good portion of time as the only human in my garden, but I am never alone there. As Aldo Leopold noted in his 1949 “A Sand County Almanac”: “When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to take part in it with love and respect.”
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In a North State Garden is North State Public Radio (mynspr.org) and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on North State Public Radio every third Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.