Not too many years back, I received a phone call from an old pal, Millard Tope. "Jim!" he exclaimed, "You've got to come over and see this lizard ... it's got the bluest tail I've ever seen!"
Millard lives only a hop, skip, and a jump from me in Cascade Estates, so I grabbed up my camera and hustled over to his home. "It's over here, under this piece of plywood," he said, pointing toward the back of his house. Lifting the plywood so we could both see his prize more clearly, he said, "Now, what is it?"
One look is all you need to recognize a juvenile Western Skink. Its four-inch body is covered with shiny glass-like scales, and the tail is the bluest blue you'll ever see. If you can believe it, it's brighter blue than even a male Mountain Bluebird - and that's really blue!
From head to the beginning of the blue tail, the skink's body has white stripes between broader dark brown to almost black body. If you get down and look it in the eye, you will see bright orange scales on the upper and lower lips. Yep, this is one very handsome lizard. Moreover, there is a great survival strategy behind that blazing blue tail.
Skinks, unlike some lizards, move almost like a snake. It's as though they're not quite sure what they should do with those snazzy-looking legs, so to propel themselves faster, they wriggle their bodies from side to side as they run.
When a skink is trying to escape from a kestrel (a small falcon that dines on lizards, mice and insects), they can run like blue-bloody-blazes in that snake-like wriggle.
What does the kestrel see first? You guessed it, that bright blue tail flailing along behind as the skink scampers through the sand and sage.
The kestrel swoops down, grasps the blue tail and, voila! The tail breaks clean off the lizard's back end! Because nerves in the tail have short-circuited, it starts thrashing when it leaves the skink's body and the kestrel is conned into believing it has the whole lizard-but ends up with just the blue tail.
The blood supply to the missing tail is immediately shut down and the young skink slithers off to live another day. In time, it will grow another tail, but it won't be as long as the original. However, it too will break off if the need arises. There appears to be a certain amount of learning in losing one's tail; researchers in California found that once a young skink has had a close encounter of the near-fatal kind it seems to be more cautious.
Skinks, like all lizards, are predators. They wait in ambush for spiders, beetles and other invertebrates to wander close enough for the skink to dash out and grasp them in their powerful jaws.
If you pick up a skink, incidentally, you may have a first-hand experience on how strong their jaws are. (Not to worry, there is only one venomous lizard in the US: The Gila Monster of the Southwest.)
If a baby skink - or other small lizard - happens to come by when another skink is hungry, the larger one may turn cannibal and gobble up the little one, blue tail and all.
There are several species of skinks throughout the world but only two can grow a bright blue tail; our Western Skink, and Gilbert's Skink found in California, Nevada and Arizona.
Some female members of the skink family are livebearers, but the western U.S. group are all egg-layers. If you're ever fortunate enough to discover a skink's nest, you'll note how much the eggs resemble Tic-Tacs, which many kids fondly know as "lizard eggs."
Unlike other lizards and snakes, skinks don't seem to require direct sunlight to stay at operating temperature and will often hide under rocks, old pieces of plywood, in house foundations and other cool out-of-the-way places waiting for prey.
If you want to share your backyard with skinks, lay some old pieces of flat wood around, and they will find it suitable habitat for safety, food and shelter. Be warned, it is illegal to keep them as "pets," and besides, they'll be happier in the wild.