Archived Mountain Voices

It’s hot, and the lizards are in heaven

The sweltering heat this summer is restricting some outdoor activities, but it’s a prime time for lizard watching. Lizards don’t mind the heat; indeed, many of them are highly adapted to dry climatic conditions. Lizard watching can be done from your front porch, along fencerows, in dry pine or oak woods, and in rocky areas.

The “spring lizards” used for fish bait are actually salamanders, which (like frogs and toads) are amphibians. True lizards are reptiles (like snakes and turtles) and have scaly, dry skins, as well as claws.

In A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard (1985), John Hanson Mitchell gives readers his “golden rule” for distinguishing salamanders from lizards: “If you can catch it, it is a salamander, if you can’t, it is a lizard.”

It never even occurred to me that I might be able to catch a fence lizard, which are aptly called “fence swifts” by many country boys. For several summers, however, I did try from time to time to capture one of the numerous skinks that live on our property. Spotting one with its pretty lines and luminescent blue tail perched on the side of the barn or outhouse, I’d attempt to ease up and grab it with my hand or encompass the critter with my cap. No such luck. They were much too quick for me.

In his introduction to A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians (1975), Roger Conant advises the would-be lizard catcher to stalk the quarry by not looking directly at it. “Move in at an angle, watching it out of the corner of your eye.” A prize fighter or major league infielder might apply that technique with success, but my hand-eye coordination wasn’t up to lizard-catching standards.

What I do plan to try, however, the next time my lizard-catching granddaughter comes to visit, is one of the nifty lizard nooses Conant describes and diagrams. It’s not complicated. You simply “attach a small noose of horsehair or fine thread or wire to the end of a pole measuring a few feet in length ... Slip the noose over the lizard’s head and let it come to rest around the neck. Jerk the pole quickly upward and the lizard is yours! This method requires practice, but it is quite efficient.”

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The eastern fence lizard is gray or brown above. Their scales are ridged so that they have a rough appearance. Females have conspicuously patterned backs, while the backs of males tend to be brownish with less pattern. Mature males have very apparent greenish-blue markings on each side of the belly. As the lizard raises and lowers itself in pushup fashion, the markings are flashed to warn off other males.

While basking in the sun, a fence lizard alternately puffs out and draws in its throat as if it were sucking on something. Ever alert to the peculiarities of each animal and plant, the ancient Cherokees invoked the fence lizard in their formulas used for drawing out the poison from snake bites. They also believed that scratching one’s legs with the claws of the first fence lizard caught each spring would result in no dangerous snakes being encountered for the remainder of the year.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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