Coles County Wild Things

Coles County Wild Things

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Common Garter Snake

Sunny days and moderate temperatures in June make for good gardening weather. It has been nice working in the yard these last few days. I discovered, however, that my muscles weren't accustomed to being used quite like that. It looks like stiffness and soreness must be endured for a while, at least until the body adjusts to the new outdoor routine.

And whether I like it or not, I have a gardening buddy to keep me company. One of our daughters left her all-black, adopted shelter cat at Mom and Dad's house in the country (ours) a couple of years ago, and soon he adopted US. Lionel is extremely friendly and thinks that everybody loves him, so he has a tendency to follow a person everywhere and stick his nose into whatever the heck happens to be going on. Since these days I am often out in the yard getting tomatoes planted and flowers put in their beds, he has lots of opportunities to be a nuisance. My youngest tells me that when she stops by while I'm working outside, all she has to do is go find Lionel in our spacious yard, and she knows that I'll always be very close by.

Last Sunday, I decided to clean out our small garden fountain and get the water flowing for our summer enjoyment. It has a small, but quite heavy, concrete base, and I was just barely able to lift it up by myself so I could maneuver it into place to set it up. As I struggled to lift the thing, I caught a glimpse of a quick, dark movement darting out from under it and whipping through the grass away from me. Immediately I knew that I had disturbed the hiding place of a little snake, and my first instinct was to pursue it in order to catch it and examine it more closely. (I just can't help it, I've been that way since I was a kid.) The trouble was, it was going lickety split, and I'm just not quite as fast as I used to be. Just as I thought the creature was going to escape into the great green expanse that is our yard, I caught just out of the corner of my eye a large black shape lift up into the air and pounce right on top of that hapless little reptile!

That stopped it cold in its tracks. Lionel, the ever-present busybody, had actually entered the game and improved the odds. For the first time ever, I was actually happy to enlist his quirky help in subduing my prey. I have to admit, he's quicker than I am. And between the two of us--what with his pouncing and holding and my nabbing and lifting--we got the job done.

Thamnophis sirtalis -- Common Garter Snake. The garter snake is the most wide-ranging reptile in all of North America. Found usually close to water sources or moist vegetation, they are frequently encountered in lawns and gardens of east-central Illinois, as well as in grassy habitats along ditches and roadsides, or in wet fields and meadows. A diurnal species (active during the day), these snakes search for frogs, toads, salamanders, earthworms, slugs, and a variety of invertebrates. Occasionally the larger adults will take small fish, young birds, and mice, depending on availability. This species of snake is able to tolerate cold weather reasonably well and may be active all year long in the southerly part of its range, however most in Illinois will hibernate, sometimes in great numbers in community dens, during the coldest part of the winter. Hibernation sites (snake dens) include spaces under logs and tree stumps, lumber and rock piles, abandoned rodent burrows, and rock crevices. These sites must stay warm enough to prevent death by freezing, have adequate ventilation, and must be neither too dry nor too wet. Several hundred snakes will use the same hibernaculum year after year, the garter snakes often sharing the space with various other different snake species. Sometimes, the garters will emerge from hibernation to bask in the sun on warmer winter days. And because snakes store food as fat, they are able to live off their fat reserve for extended periods of time with no adverse effects.

Males and females mate almost immediately after emerging from hibernation, and this may be as early as March in the southern counties of Illinois. This species gives birth to live young -- the eggs are retained in the body of the mother until hatching. Garter snakes survive so well in towns and suburbs partly because they don't require safe places for their eggs (they don't have to lay them). The mother will birth from 15 to 80 young (quite a range), and the babies emerge already 6 to 8 inches long. Born from July through early October, the young must fend for themselves. They grow rapidly, and will reach sexual maturity in two to three years. The adult snakes will generally grow to a length of two to three feet and are considered to be medium-sized when compared to other snake species.

The coloration of these snakes can be variable, but the back and side stripes are usually quite well-defined. There are many subspecies of the common garter snake all over North America and the color patterns vary, but here in east-central Illinois the stripes are generally yellow or gray, with one stripe running down the midback, and a slightly fainter stripe appearing along each side that runs lengthwise along the body. Some individuals may have a bit of red coloring on their sides between the scales. The background body color is usually a dark brown or black (to me they seem more a dark green), with a belly that is gray-green or bluish with dark spots on the edges of most belly scales.

Garter snakes are very efficient predators, but are often preyed upon themselves by hawks, eagles, owls, great blue herons, badgers, coyotes, foxes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, and weasels. While living near humans, they may also fall prey to domestic dogs and cats, lawn mowers, weed-whackers, and moving vehicles. They have been known to live as long as 18 years in captivity, but that would be exceptional for free-living individuals. Not a lot is known about the expected life span of one of these snakes in the wild.

The snake in my yard was a juvenile that was about 14 to 16 inches long. I'm guessing that it was most likely one of last year's babies, still in its growing phase. When disturbed, its first instinct was to try to escape as quickly as possible. If not for the intervention of the cat, it very well may have!

Snakes are among the most misunderstood of all animals. Because of this, many harmless, beneficial snakes have met untimely demises at the hands of rake or shovel-wielding humans. As a result of false teaching and squeamishness, many people dread encounters with them, and control is often practiced when it is not needed. In next month's column, we will examine how snakes benefit the environment and why it may be to our advantage to have them around our lawns, gardens, and farms. And whatever happened to the little snake that was hiding under my garden fountain? Tune in next month and find out.

( With the article are some pictures that were taken of the snake against the backdrop of my garden gloves, its markings easily seen. Also, a shot of the snake and the cat written about in the article.)

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