It was the buzzards attracted to the site in hopes of a meal that attracted me.

On my daily four-mile walks around the countryside, I make a point of checking to see what buzzards, in this case 12-15 black vultures, are eating when they're on the ground. Usually, especially with this many in one spot, I'll be looking at a deer that got whacked by a pickup, maybe a raccoon or sometimes a careless canine.

This time, it was an armadillo. Three armadillos, actually, lying in a group in the bottom of the ditch, buzzards fighting over their carcasses.

They hadn't been hit on the highway, as far as I could tell, and armadillos don't run in herds, so the only conclusion I could come to was that someone had shot the creatures during a nighttime excursion and decided to dump them out there by the road, a less than regal ending for a Texas icon.

Don't get me wrong. I shot my share of armadillos back in the day. A country kid with a .22 is going to punch a hole in anything that's not going to get him arrested or pounded by his parents. Armadillos definitely were on the list.

But I've come to have a different view of the little guys in the past 20 years or so, especially as their population seems to have declined considerably because of agriculture changes, lack of water and their inability to withstand any contact with automobiles or trucks.

The animal that has given rise to festivals, races, art and a long list of commercial products, including things made from their remains — beer can holders, wine bottle holders and hats — has become as singularly, iconically Texan as Lone Star beer. It has become a favorite of politicians, used often to prove their office worthiness by touting their fortitude: "There's nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos."

But those dead armadillos need a little help, I think, and even though it's never going to happen, they could use some protection by Texas Parks and Wildlife to make sure our kids know about armadillos. There are no protections for armadillos right now, except the fear factor of their possibly being a vector for Hansen's disease, or leprosy. TPWD did, however, make them off limits for sale as live animals.

Actually, what we have is the 9-banded armadillo, the only armadillo in North America, according to TPWD. Sometime 130-140 years ago, the armadillo lived only in the regions along the Rio Grande. But they began to move steadily northward and even into other states.

During the tough times in the 1930s, armadillos became food staples for some families, referred to as "Hoover Hogs" in honor of the president who was blamed for ushering in the Great Depression.

They can see but not very well. They rely on their sense of smell and ability to haul cargo when they need to get away from a predator.

They are mammals, obviously. If you look underneath that flexible hard shell, you'll find hair and skin and all the requisite mammal equipment, including four teats on the female. Those are for feeding the four babies she gives birth to each year.

Those four babies always are the same sex. They actually begin life as exact clones when a single fertilized egg splits twice and becomes four identical little armadillos.

The four babies grow up to eat grubs and ants and such as they forage around their range. Your soft, green lawn is particularly attractive to them because of the moisture and because it's easy to scoop out the earth as they feed.

That feeding habit has cost many an armadillo his life, too, but maybe we ought to be more tolerant. They're just creatures out there trying to make a living in a changing world.

If we have to choose between a perfect lawn and an armadillo, I'll take the armadillo.

Contact Mike Leggett at mleggett@statesman.com