It's summer, when snakes are on the move, and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County reminds visitors that these animals pose no danger to humans.
"Despite recent reports, there's almost zero chance to encounter a venomous snake in DuPage County," said Jack MacRae, a naturalist at the district's Willowbrook Wildlife Center. "To set the record straight, the eastern massasauga is the only such species native to DuPage County and there have been no confirmed sightings in the wild here in more than 30 years."
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The rare eastern massasauga, a member of the rattlesnake family, lives in shallow marshes and is very secretive. Venomous species common in other parts of the United States, such as the timber rattlesnake, the copperhead and the water moccasin, cannot survive our area's cold winters and do not live here.
To the untrained eye, the western fox snake, a common species in forest preserves, bears some resemblance to a rattlesnake in coloration and size. And though it has no rattle, it may mimic rattlesnake behavior by rustling its tail in the grass to frighten away an intruder. The fox snake is a blotchy brown, can reach up to 4 feet, lives in grassy environments and eats rodents, frogs and sometimes birds.
The northern water snake, a common inhabitant near lakes and streams, is often misidentified as a water moccasin. Though water snakes do become aggressive when handled, they pose no danger to people and will usually flee if startled. They can reach about 4 feet, vary in color from brown to brownish-black and spend their time basking in the sun and hunting for small prey like fish, frogs and crayfish.
Other species common in the preserves are the eastern garter snake and the midland brown snake. Garter snakes are active in many environments and have distinctive yellow stripes down the length of their bodies, which can reach about 2 feet. Midland brown snakes are common but not often seen. They hide in leaf litter and are well-camouflaged by their coloration and small size.
So, what should a forest preserve visitor do if they see a snake? First and foremost is to remember that snakes are a part of DuPage County's natural environment and are not dangerous, MacRae said.
"Snakes can be a frightening sight for many people, but no one has been harmed by just walking past one," MacRae said. "Conflicts only arise when people try to handle or harass the animals."
Visitors should tread carefully on the trails in spring, summer and fall when snakes are active. During warm summer weather, snakes are most likely to be moving across trails and searching for food. As weather cools in fall, snakes spend more time basking on rocks and along trails as they try to stay warm in the sunshine.
"Midland brown snakes are particularly easy to overlook because they resemble a stick laying on the ground, so trail users need to take special care not to trample or ride over them when cool temperatures make them sluggish," MacRae said.
Visitors should also take a moment to enjoy the experience of seeing a snake in the wild.
"We have only about a dozen species native to DuPage County, most of which people will never encounter. They are fascinating creatures and everyone should be able to appreciate their place in the environment," MacRae said.
Anyone who finds an injured snake should consult Willowbrook Wildlife Center at 525 S. Park Blvd., Glen Ellyn. The center cares for injured native species and strives to release them into wild spaces. Staff members answer questions from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at (630) 942-6200. After hours, an automated system provides information.