Is the Midwestern Armadillo Invasion Responsible for Turkey Population Declines?
Here’s everything you need to know about the armored mammals’ northward expansion—and whether they really pose a threat to wild turkeys
Nine-banded armadillos are coming to a Midwestern woodlot and pasture near you—or perhaps they already have. As climate change has created a trend of milder winters, the leathery little relatives of anteaters and sloths have extended their home range northward from Texas into the lower Midwest. Ground zero for the armadillo expansion seems to be Missouri. But they’re also showing up in southern Illinois, Indiana, and even Iowa.
“Armadillos have absolutely shown up on the scene within the last 10 years,” says Rick Dahl, the chairman of the National Deer Association who hunts and manages wildlife habitat in Central Missouri. “I would say they’re pretty common at this point.”
“You think you’re looking at turkey scratchings but it’s really an armadillo because it’s a continuous line,” Dahl explains. “The ground is clearly disturbed, but it’s not the way a hen will scratch and move to the next spot. Occasionally we’ll get pictures of them on trail camera. I also see evidence of the holes they dig. I’ll be driving the tractor and planting, and I’ve seen armadillos climb out of them. They’re denning right in the ag fields.”
As they’ve expanded, armadillos have gone through a transformation in the public eye; from beloved, hardy scrappers in dusty deserts to destructive pests that uproot crops, dig up garden beds, and carry leprosy. More than a few turkey hunters have noticed that turkey poult production has tanked everywhere that armadillos have either long-occupied or recently expanded to. So how concerned about the armadillo’s expansion should hunters and wildlife managers really be? And do turkey fanatics have any reason to believe armadillos are the culprit behind the low turkey poult production?
Why Are There Armadillos in Missouri?
Armadillos need warm temperatures to survive. As warmer climates push further north, the critter’s home range has expanded from Texas and the coastal South. Now, they reside in Oklahoma, Nebraska, northern Missouri, southern Illinois, and Iowa.
“They don’t have a lot of fat on their bodies. They are a temperature-intolerant animal,” Bowersock says. “If it’s overly cold for a long period of time, they don’t do very well and won’t expand very far. But likely with climatic changes, warmer winters and shorter stints of cold temperatures have allowed armadillos to expand across the country. In the last decade, we’re seeing more armadillos showing up in more places throughout the southern Midwest.”
That “overly cold” weather means temperatures around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. When freezing weather strikes, armadillos will burrow underground. But they can’t hibernate, and the bugs they feed on burrow much deeper into the ground than they can. This means they often starve or freeze to death if the cold weather lasts for more than a few days.
MDC wildlife damage biologist Josh Wisdom recalls a record-setting cold snap in 2021 that should have shrunk the armadillo population.
“We really thought that would have killed them out. But I don’t think it touched them at all,” Wisdom tells Outdoor Life, noting that no one knows how they survived.
Four decades of wildlife sighting data from Missouri bowhunters tells biologists that armadillos have chased warmer winters north.
“We ask hunters during bowhunting season to record how many hours they spend in their stand and all the animals they see,” Missouri Department of Conservation furbearer biologist Nate Bowersock tells Outdoor Life. “With the data we have, at least going back to the mid-’90s we can show that armadillos were stacked up on the Arkansas border, but over time [they slowly crept] north, to the point that they’re quite well-distributed throughout the state. You can probably see an armadillo in most places in Missouri now.”
Is the Armadillo Invasion a Bad Thing?
With the expansion of the species comes some questions about how much damage armadillos actually create. They aren’t quite at the level of feral hogs mowing through fences and goring dogs with their fangs. But armadillos leave their fair share of headaches behind.
“They’re omnivores, but they dig up a lot of grubs and other foods,” Bowersock says. “They’ll dig up these huge holes and channels, kind of like a badger. We have a lot of livestock here in Missouri, so ranchers don’t like them because, inevitably, they can create these big holes that cattle can step in and injure themselves. So they’re not always seen [in a positive light].”
When not putting cattle at risk of broken legs, armadillo holes might actually provide positive benefits in more wild settings.
“Some science has suggested that all the burrows actually create cover for smaller animals like birds and small mammals in the forest,” Bowersock says. “They could provide some cover for [other] animals [too]. But we haven’t looked into that a whole lot here in Missouri.”
As for the leprosy concern, Wisdom, a lifelong southern Missourian, says he doesn’t lose much sleep over it. He suggests anyone handling an armadillo should take the same standard precautions they would with any scavenging wildlife.
“I know everyone talks about this, but I personally have never heard of anybody getting leprosy or being exposed to it. I would probably put a [dead armadillo] in a bag and throw it away, or put on a leather glove and move it to a spot where it can break down naturally and it’s not going to be an eyesore. I’m sure it’s a possibility but I’ve never heard of it happening.”
All About Armadillos
The idea of an increasing population of armadillos in Missouri might seem a bit far-fetched. When you think of nine-banded armadillos, you probably think of Texas instead. The armadillo, Spanish for “little armored one,” is the official Texas small mammal because it’s a “hardy, pioneering creature” with “many remarkable and unique traits that … distinguish a true Texan, such as a deep respect and need for the land, the ability to change and adapt, and a fierce undying love for freedom.” They’re also called “Texas speed bumps” for their tendency to meet an untimely demise on roadways. But instead of getting run over, they often get startled and jump three to four feet into the air, hitting an offending car’s bumper or undercarriage.
Nine-banded armadillos are the only armadillo species with a stable population. Southern three-banded, six-banded, pink fairy armadillos, and giant armadillos are all designated as threatened or endangered. Only nine-banded armadillos reside in the United States. Despite their name, they may have seven to 11 bands of leathery armor across their midsections. Contrary to popular belief, nine-banded armadillos actually don’t roll up into a ball the way three-banded armadillos do in times of stress. Bobcats, coyotes, alligators, bears, wolves, and raptors all prey on armadillos.
The armor, also known as the “osteoderm,” is made of keratin on the outside and “tiles” of bone underneath connected by collagen fibers. This armor covers every body part except for the insides of their legs and their bellies. Nine-banded armadillos can inflate their intestines and float across water or sink themselves and run across riverbeds. They prefer brushy, forested habitat near water. Sandy soils make for easier burrowing and digging for the variety of insects, grubs, and worms that comprise their diet.
Despite the concerns about leprosy, armadillos have long been considered a meat species in South and Central America. In Texas during the Great Depression, they even got the nicknames “Hoover hog,” “poor man’s pork,” and “possum on the half shell.” While contracting leprosy after interacting with armadillos is very rare, the disease is curable with early diagnosis and treatment. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend avoiding contact with armadillos if possible.
Do Armadillos Eat Turkey Eggs?
Turkey hunters with fears of declining gobbler populations in Missouri have suggested that armadillo expansion might be a culprit of low nest production. One Facebook post shares trail camera images of an armadillo going into an unprotected turkey nest at night. While it’s unclear exactly what the armadillo is doing in there, viewers can use their imaginations.
But at a larger scale, armadillos don’t pose much of a threat to turkey nests. Crows, feral hogs, and raccoons are much bigger concerns, according to MDC turkey biologist Nick Oakley.
“Armadillos are opportunistic egg eaters. I don’t know if they’re going to flush a turkey off a nest. A hen who has put in all the effort to lay those eggs and incubate them is not going to be easily moved off that nest by something like an armadillo,” Oakley tells Outdoor Life. “Other predators and certainly humans can push a turkey off her nest, but I don’t think an armadillo is going to be a problem.”
Oakley cites research from neighboring Texas and Arkansas in which armadillos ate eggs from one turkey nest out of 52 and one turkey nest out of 118, respectively. In a different study of the stomach contents of 81 Arkansas armadillos, researchers didn’t find any signs of bird or egg consumption.
“Armadillos probably do eat an egg when they come across it. Everything would eat an egg. But it’s likely not one of those primary sources of failed nests or poult predation,” Oakley says.
How to Get Rid of Armadillos
The MDC does not consider armadillos as an invasive species. They’re instead dubbed “nuisance wildlife,” a phrase reserved for species that are technically native to a landscape but can cause a lot of problems. (Think squirrels, raccoons, and groundhogs.) Lethal removal is legal for nuisance wildlife, with a few exceptions.
“In Missouri, we have a pretty permissive wildlife code,” Wisdom says. “The landowner may protect their property, with a few exceptions of deer, turkeys, and bears. But if you have a raccoon in your chicken coop or your gardens, you don’t have to prove to us that they’re causing damage.”
Bobby Candee, a hunter in Pulaski County, Missouri, says he sees a live armadillo once every few weeks, though he spots them hit along the highway a lot more. The critters dig large holes in his cattle pastures. He’s shot four of the critters on his property in recent years. He doesn’t have much choice—it’s them or his livestock.
“There’s holes all over. I’ve never stepped in one, but they’re all over the cow pasture,” he says. “If [one of my cows] stepped in one, it’d probably break her leg.”
If you don’t feel like shooting a problem armadillo, trapping is another option. But trapping armadillos takes an ounce more finesse than other scavengers, Wisdom says.
“Armadillos are not necessarily hard to trap, but they’re a little different than most animals. For a raccoon, you can typically put a can of tuna out and have pretty high success. But you can’t really bait in armadillos very well,” he says, noting that armadillos can’t see or smell very well.
“More often than not people will try to trap them with a cage trap and 2-by-10 or fencing to funnel the armadillo in. You can try to use overripe fruit, but they just won’t really smell food and go after it the same way a raccoon or a possum would. It’s more about trying to find a travel corridor and funneling them into the trap.”
Final Thoughts on Armadillo Creep in Missouri and the Midwest
And while they might not be of much concern to turkeys, turkey hunters, and turkey conservationists, armadillos do make for yet another scavenging animal adding to the mix of sign, scat, occasional egg-eating, and general wildlife coexistence happening in the turkey woods.
So how far will the armadillos go? Bowersock says it depends on how much winter temperatures continue to change. It’s tough to imagine a world in which an armadillo could survive a Minnesota winter. But more near-term expansion in the Midwest is possible.
“They definitely could keep moving north. But once you get to Michigan or Wisconsin or Minnesota, even with how things have been warming, those states still see a lot of cold. I don’t think armadillos would do well there,” he explains. “But these southern Midwest states, with forest and mixed ag and all the potential hidey holes, we could still see some expansion here in the coming years.”