Dobie: Once strangers, now part of our family

Italian wall lizards in Babylon Italian wall lizards in Babylon Photo Credit: Cathy Dobie

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Michael Dobie Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board. ...

Say hello to my little friends.

They're from another country, arrived in the neighborhood with no advance warning, and seem in no hurry to leave. It looks like they enjoy living here.

They're Italian wall lizards, and they're all over Long Island.

They've been scurrying around my house in West Babylon for a decade or so -- or at least that's when we first noticed them. My neighbors never have said anything about seeing them. Then again, I've never said anything to them about seeing lizards, either.

One day they were not even a figment of my imagination. The next day they were part of our lives.

They have a local origin story that insiders know well. Native to Italy and once popular in the local pet trade, a group of them escaped somehow from a Garden City shop in 1966 and started migrating. Similar escapes -- or deliberate releases -- produced colonies in New Jersey, Southern California and Topeka, Kansas.

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Here, like many Long Islanders, they traveled via the Long Island Rail Road, according to Hofstra University professor and herpetologist Russell Burke.

The railroad lines were perfect corridors for moving east and west and the lizards have fanned out all the way to East Hampton and into Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. There are colonies on the South Shore and the North Shore, and a big one at Hofstra.

As they invade neighborhoods, many residents find them charming, even helpful. Others call Burke.

"Some of them," he acknowledges, "are terrified."

Italian wall lizards are no threat to humans, he assures them. They'll nip you if you try to grab them, and the bigger males -- which max out at 6 inches or so -- might be able to break the skin with a bite. A lizard's main predators are cats and birds, and it will release its tail if an enemy takes hold. But mostly wall lizards are the live-and-let-live type.

For those of us with vegetable gardens, or anybody who's squirmy about bugs, the lizards are welcome for the work they do, work others don't want to do. They eat insects -- ants, aphids, spiders, centipedes, snails.

"A wide variety of small crunchy things," Burke says. "Anything that's smaller than their head and moves, they're likely to try."

Sometimes when I'm watering my rows of tomatoes, one will dart out from somewhere and look at me, as though waiting for a drink. I don't know for sure because we can't communicate. I'll ask if he's thirsty. He doesn't say anything. But if I let water drip into a little pool near him, he'll take a sip.

After all their years on Long Island, they're still a bit exotic. There's a lot we don't know or understand about them. For starters, we don't know how many are here. Burke says thousands, but anything more exact would be just a guess. We know they eat nectar and pollen, but we don't know whether they're acting as pollinators -- an important function performed by some close relatives in their native habitats, Burke says.

Life is good for the lizards on Long Island. Food is plentiful and they have no biological competition -- unlike in California, where removal efforts are underway because they pose a threat to native lizards.

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They live in broad daylight and in the shadows. They come out to sun themselves on patios, stoops and the tops of hedges, and hide and sleep in cracks, crevices and other tight spaces.

For me, they're a piece of the wonderful randomness of life.

Good thing they're not from south of the border. I might have been forced to send them back.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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