One of the reasons I love living in the desert is because I share half the year with lizards. Although the sagebrush lizard is “common” in that it can be found in most western states, I have had a couple of uncommon experiences with them.
The first occurred last summer after I moved into a (former) rental. One day about a week after we moved in a sagebrush lizard appeared in between the slats of the screen door on the inside. Had he been living in the house before we arrived? Each day he appeared in the late morning, seemingly from nowhere, to bask on the stone windowsill inside the house. He spent most afternoons on the inside of the screen door somewhat hidden behind its slats. A house lizard has come to live with us, I thought, with pleasure. I’ll call him Shadow.
My Chihuahuas were astonished by this small creature that snapped up ants, and moved at lightening speed from one end of the house to the other! Shadow befriended Hope and Lucy tolerating their curiosity when they nudged him on his stony plateau. Lily B, my dove kept a sharp eye on him too, sometimes flying down to inspect the floor after Shadow streaked by.
Whenever I saw the lizard during the day I would speak to him telling him how happy I was that he joined our little family. During our “conversations” Shadow peered me with bright almond shaped eyes, cocking his head from side to side and behaving as if he understood what I was saying. Perhaps he did. He certainly responded to my attention.
Researching Sagebrush lizards I soon learned that males had two bright iridescent cobalt patches on their undersides. When I went outside to peer at Shadow clinging to the screen from the inside, I saw the astonishing blue patches. Shadow was a male.
Alas, three short weeks later, the property manager who neglected to respond to my warning, twice, crushed Shadow in the door killing him instantly. I was totally bereft. After his death even the female lizard that unexpectedly bowed to me as I buried Shadow outdoors under his window made me sad… Later, I wondered if the little female had been Shadow’s mate because she stayed around the house and often basked in the same window that Shadow did (only on the outside) until the cool temperatures and a sun slipping low on the horizon sent her into hibernation in October.
Above: Shadow on the inside of the screen
It was a steamy April afternoon four months later when I went out the back door of our little river house (having moved in February) to sit and to shell some Redbud pods.
When I sat down on a little wooden bench near the door a Sagebrush lizard appeared out of one of the wooden slats of a square slatted plank that served as a bottom step. I held my breath as I looked for blue patches and saw none. But he seemed like a male. When the lizard started bowing to me I stood up and bowed back while calling to him (?) softly. The lizard regarded me with one beady eye. “I’m glad to meet you” I said, delighted that my voice didn’t scare him. I had a sudden pure burst of joy as he and I conversed, me with words, him by using his body to respond by bowing to me after I spoke!
I recalled the little female who had made this apparently formal bowing gesture towards me as I buried Shadow under the window with some Prairie sage last fall…
This was the second lizard I had met that liked wooden slats I thought to myself, surprised by the apparent coincidence. I decided to bring him some water. After making sure he had plenty of stones to reach into shallow the water-dish, I bid him good day. “Please stay,” I finished, before rounding the house.
When I lay down to take a nap that afternoon a name popped into my head “Leo” I heard myself say. Perfect!
Later that afternoon I went out to see Leo, and sure enough, he was still basking in the sun. I saw a flash of blue although he disappeared when I took a picture. He’s going to stay, I thought, and believed it.
The next morning when I came around the corner there was Leo basking on one of the slats. “Hi Leo” I spoke softly. In truth I had no idea if this lizard was male or female (because a female could have pale blue patches too in some cases) and at that moment I didn’t care. I returned to the house for my camera and snapped a picture. Suddenly, A smaller lizard appeared out of the out of one of the slats and Leo bowed to the little lizard first, and then turned to bow to me! Absurdly happy but still stunned, I stood there gaping. I named the smaller lizard Liza.
Bursts of pure joy flooded me. Just knowing that I might have two lizards moving into this outside space was enough. My gratitude overflowed because their presence was also a healing experience that allowed me to fall in love with Sagebrush lizards again.
Above: Liza and Leo – from left to right
After this second lizard experience occurred I did more in depth research on Sagebrush lizards, a common species throughout the Southwest. I was fascinated by the bowing behavior and wondered if it might be part of the sagebrush mating ritual. Sure enough, head bobbing (a single bob) and shuddering (repeated head bobbing) are part of the male’s mating behavior towards a female. (A male might do head bobbing 24 – 60 times an hour while courtship is in progress). Males are territorial and mate with more female, although they have a preference for certain females and court them frequently. Lizards also use chemical and visual cues to select a mate. The brilliant blue patches on the undersides of the male attract the females, and sometimes the female rejects a male suitor for unknown reasons. After the male impregnates one female she develops an orange belly indicating that she is carrying eggs. Her mate then moves on to another chosen female in his territory. Mating usually takes place in May or June, and one or two clutches of 2 -10 eggs are laid about an inch underneath the base of sagebrush in June or July. Incubation lasts for 40 plus days and sometimes the young appear as early as late July. I saw many very small Sagebrush lizards last August.
Sagebrush lizards are very eco – friendly eating ants, beetles, termites, grasshoppers, spiders and scorpions.
The males are bigger than the females.
Lizards are diurnal and are most active in the late morning and afternoon. They are fond of open spaces where they can bask in the sun, but are never far from some form of protection. Roadrunners love to eat them and many other animals and birds like the badger, snake, and hawk do too. If fortunate, a Sagebrush lizard will live about four years in the wild.
Although fascinating from a natural history perspective none of this information explains why any Sagebrush lizard would spend time “bowing” to me!