Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist for University of Illinois Extension.
Just seeing or hearing the word is enough to make most people shudder. A lot of stories have been told about these creatures, and there's no shortage of old wives' tales to keep us fearful and squeamish where these creepy crawlies are concerned.
Snakes are without a doubt among the most feared and misunderstood of all creatures in the animal kingdom. There seems to be a universal dread and loathing of serpents, and that probably stems from our early ancestors who lived and worked much closer to nature than most of us do today. There are many bizarre and exaggerated stories and myths that likely originated in the distant past when confrontations with snakes in the wild were common and little about them was known. Folk tales of snakes have been handed down through the generations and include stories of reptiles that charm prey, poison people with their breath, swallow their young to protect them, roll away like hoops, and even suck milk directly from cows. These things would be amusing and funny except that many folks still believe them! Even in this day and age when much has been learned and documented about the natural habits and behaviors of many snake species, a good number of ridiculous stories still persist. Actually, most of those who profess to dislike snakes and greatly fear them are also the people who know the least about them -- in fact, they don't want to know!
Many people who are fearful of snakes (a real condition known as ophidiophobia, an irrational and overwhelming fear of snakes) seem to have this idea that they're crawling all over the place. The truth is, even when they are plentiful and common in an environment, snakes are typically secretive and elusive, and must be sought out to be observed (unless we step on or uncover them by accident). All of them prefer to be inconspicuous as they slip away, hide, or lie still in the hope that they will not be seen. Encounters with them may be only momentary. Though they might appear threatening to the casual observer, they will only hiss, strike out, or bite if they are cornered or restrained in their attempts to get away.
In Illinois, there are many species of snakes, and most are non-venomous and benign. According to the University of Illinois Living With Wildlife website, several of these harmless species are commonly misidentified as one of the four venomous species found in Illinois. Those native Illinois species that are venomous include the Copperhead, the Cottonmouth (water moccasin), the Massasauga (an endangered rattlesnake species), and the Timber rattlesnake (a threatened species in Illinois). To those of us living in east central Illinois, these do not pose a serious threat because they are pretty uncommon in our area and tend to be present more in certain southern locations in the state. That is good news for us.
Our native snakes in Illinois can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including fields, wetlands, forests, rocky hillsides, ponds, lakes, streams, farmland, vacant lots, residential areas, and our own backyards and gardens. Living in these areas, they may navigate along the ground, swim, climb bushes and trees, and even venture underground, all depending on the species. There are some snakes that do burrow, but most "snake holes" are actually carved out by chipmunks, mice, gophers, shrews and other small mammals. The snakes may use these ready-made holes for hunting food, for shelter, and as egg-laying sites, but few species can actually "dig" them themselves.
All snakes are predators and eat a wide variety of prey. These include mice, voles, snails, slugs, insects, frogs, lizards, fish, bird eggs, and nestlings. Species such as the black rat snake and milk snake consume great numbers of rodents and are of great benefit to farmers in and around their barns and storage sheds. In fact, the milk snake often enters burrows and will consume young mice and rats right in their nests. The common garter snake, for instance, is a friend in our yards and gardens as it seeks out and consumes garden pests such as slugs, snails, and certain soft-bodied insects. If you find one of these harmless creatures around your home or garden, consider it a friend that is there to do its job. Leave it alone, and chances are you will never see it again.
Snakes are important components of the natural food chain and affect the "balance of nature" not just as predators but also as prey. Snakes and their young and eggs are sometimes eaten by fish, amphibians, other snakes, predatory mammals such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums, and by several species of birds. In fact, birds account for much of snake predation, and not just hawks and owls. Smaller birds consume great numbers of small snakes, and it is not unusual to see the tail end of a small garter snake dangling from the mouth of a nestling robin!
The first thing we should do when we encounter a snake is to leave it alone. A snake near our home or yard is usually a good thing, and it's almost always because it has found a source of food that we don't want inhabiting our living space anyway. But if we don't want them lurking innocently around us, then we can reduce the availability of shelter such as rock piles, tall grass, and woodpiles. This not only takes away their hiding places, but also limits the habitat favored by mice and other rodents, which are a ready "take-out" menu for the snakes. Protecting food sources such as pet foods and cleaning spilled bird seed can also discourage rodent infestations, and subsequently will limit the attractiveness of our homes to these beneficial reptiles.
The little garter snake that I captured in my yard (from last month's column) was only trying to escape when my cat and I discovered it whipping away through the grass. I was happy to see it, because to me it represented the gift of a healthy ecosystem right at my "back door." When I picked it up and held it in my hands, my first concern was that my cat's teeth had punctured its body upon capture. But there wasn't a mark to be found -- the cat had only been curious, and had subdued the snake gently. Though at first the little reptile thrashed and wriggled in an instinctive attempt to escape my grasp, it soon settled down and became quite docile as I turned it over and let it crawl through my fingers while looking at its beautiful markings. What a pleasure to be able to handle this elusive creature for just a moment in its wild young life!
If we have snakes around our homes, we should feel lucky because they are there for a reason. They are harmless and of great benefit to us. Regardless of our fears, the snakes in our area are not aggressive, and unless they are cornered, most will flee when they see us. Please resist the urge to kill them. Appreciate their presence and let them be, just as you do with songbirds in your garden. My little friend was enjoyed for a few brief moments, and then released carefully at the edge of the woods. If he's lucky, he will mature into a beautiful adult specimen and will pass on his genes to the next generation. And I tell you truly -- I hope he stays around.