Meet the snakes that share the suburbs with us

  • This large fox snake suns itself on a bike path near Wheaton. Fox snakes can grow to be more than five feet long.

    This large fox snake suns itself on a bike path near Wheaton. Fox snakes can grow to be more than five feet long. Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted5/18/2021 6:00 AM

When it comes to snakes, it seems most people have a strong opinion.

Some, like many of Stillman's college interns, will try to catch a snake if they spot one. They can't wait to give the animal a closer look.

 

Other folks follow the Indiana Jones philosophy. One neighbor, for example, asked an exterminator to get the snakes out of her yard. I'm sure you can guess which snake camp I belong to.

That said, let's give the Indiana Jones crew some consideration. Often, fear of snakes stems from the belief that all snakes are venomous. The vast majority are not poisonous. In our area, accidentally encountering a venomous snake is a virtual impossibility.

The eastern massasauga, sometimes called the pygmy rattler, is the region's sole venomous snake. It measures from 1.5 to 3 feet in length with a rattle at the tip of its tail. This shy creature is only found in a few scattered locations. Thanks to intensive agriculture and wetland drainage, the massasauga is so rare that it is endangered in Illinois and threatened nationally. So, there is no need to worry.

Some snake basics

Two young fox snakes in hand.
Two young fox snakes in hand. - Courtesy of Maggie Bednarek
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My first full-time job as a naturalist involved caring for a variety of snakes. As part of a snake program, we would let the public touch a few. The point of doing so was to illustrate that they are dry to the touch, not slimy. Of course, the snakes we shared had gotten acclimated to this educational routine.

For the longest time, I couldn't understand how this idea of slimy snakes got started. Finally, one possible explanation occurred to me. If your experience with snakes was based on grabbing a frightened wild one, it could be a bit slimy. This is, however, not the normal condition of otherwise dry snake skin.

Not all snakes have a head as distinct from the neck as a fox snake's head is. Its head can vary in color from coppery to yellowish brown. The head is widest behind the eyes and it sports a bluntly rounded snout.

Speaking of their snouts, while snakes can smell some with their nostrils, they do their best smelling with their tongues. As a snake flicks its tongue, it picks up chemicals from the air and the ground. These compounds are delivered to the Jacobson's organ, which is located in the roof of the snake's mouth. This organ contains sensory cells that transfer chemical information to the olfactory lobe of the brain.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When a hungry snake turns it head and flicks its tongue, it is likely surveying the landscape for the nearest prey. With the fox snake, the list of prey would include voles, mice, chipmunks, gophers, ground squirrels, eggs, and newborn rabbits. Fox snakes are, in turn, prey for hawks, owls, weasels, fox, and coyotes.

Western fox snake

The fox snake is often mistaken for a rattler ... and it wants to be.

If it feels threatened, the fox snake will rapidly quiver the end of its rattle-less tail. Should the tail vibrate against dried leaves or grass, it can strongly suggest that the fox snake is a dangerous rattler. Other snakes use the tail-quiver trick as well.

In fact, the fox snake is a harmless (to us) constrictor that frequents pasture, prairie, farmland, woodland, and forest edge habitat. Up north, it is often called a pine snake. The species can be found from the Indiana Dunes, across northern Illinois and Missouri, to eastern Nebraska, up to southeast South Dakota, across Wisconsin and the western half of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

It is a fairly large, thickset snake that can grow to be 4 feet in length. Its background color is yellowish brown to tan. The fox snake has a row of black or chocolate brown blotches running down the back to the tail.

There are also smaller dark patches along the sides of the snake. The pattern of side spots alternate with the larger patches along the top of the animal.

This large, somewhat sluggish, diurnal snake can be relatively easy to catch. If you do so, you'll soon learn how this serpent earned its name. Agitated snakes often produce stinky anal secretions to discourage a predator from grabbing or biting them. The musky anal secretions from this snake were supposedly reminiscent of a fox, which has the smell of somewhat diluted skunk spray. When handled, other wild snakes also implement this odoriferous musk defense.

Garter snakes

Garter snakes are slender and generally range in length from 1.5 to nearly 4 feet. This one is finishing off a frog meal.
Garter snakes are slender and generally range in length from 1.5 to nearly 4 feet. This one is finishing off a frog meal. - Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

Garter snakes are everywhere, from Canada to Florida. There are an assortment of species and subspecies.

First, they are garter snakes, not garden snakes. They were named after the colored strips of fabric that were used in the old days to hold up stockings.

Now, we have two species in our neighborhood. The common garter snake and the plains garter snake. Before I go any further, I'd like to quote a passage about common garter snakes from a reptile field guide: "This extremely variable snake typically has three light stripes on a background of black, brown, gray, or olive. The stripes may be yellow, greenish yellow, brown, bluish, or white."

Well, that doesn't exactly narrow down the identification very much.

It turns out that the side stripe on a plains garter snake is at a slightly different location than the common garter snake. Since they are found in similar habitats and eat much the same prey, let's keep things simple and lump them together as garter snakes.

Home on the Plains

Snakes, like this garter snake, use their tongues to collect scents from the air.
Snakes, like this garter snake, use their tongues to collect scents from the air. - Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

Garter snakes can be found in pastures, marshes, vacant lots and forest edge habitats. They eat earthworms, slugs, snails, toads, frogs, salamanders, small fish, and insects. From the other end of the food chain, garter snakes are eaten by larger snakes, hawks, foxes, coyotes possums, raccoons, skunks, and herons.

My favorite experience with garter snakes was on a warm spring day in Minnesota. The garage attached to my house sat on a concrete slab. When the garage door went up, you could see a long seam that separated the garage floor from a small concrete apron outside the garage.

On a warm, sunny spring day, as I opened the garage door, I noticed a garter snake sunning itself on the apron. As the door went up, I saw another and another and another snake squiggling out of that seam in the concrete.

Within a few minutes, two to three dozen snakes poured out of that seam. It was like a small garter snake fountain.

Actually, the garage foundation was the garter snakes' winter retreat. Even though garter snakes are cold-tolerant snakes, they are coldblooded animals that can't manufacture their own heat. So, they need to find a space to safely wait out bitter cold winter weather. Such a location is known as a hibernaculum.

The word suggests hibernation, but it isn't quite the same. Even though snakes lower their oxygen consumption and heart rate, they do not have any fat reserves to burn up like hibernating mammals do. Because snakes don't hibernate like mammals, herpetologists use the term brumation rather than hibernation.

Whatever it's called, they spend the winter in logs, under tree stumps, in rock piles, under roads, under garages (like mine) and other buildings. There can be dozens to hundreds of snakes in these winter dens.

Snake oil sales

Snake oil has come to be a term used to describe fraudulent concoctions that claimed to heal what ailed you. For the snake haters, an advertisement featuring "snake oil" would hardly be a selling point.

Snake oil treatments arrived with 19th century Chinese immigrants who worked on American railroads. One of their medical treatments was derived from the mildly venomous Chinese water snake. This particular "snake oil" was rich in omega-3 acids and was said to reduce inflammation from sore muscles and arthritis.

Unfortunately, this era's shady patent medicine trade took the idea and corrupted it.

During a demonstration at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago, a snake oil salesman slit open a snake and boiled it, claiming that this "beneficial" product originated with Native Americans. Poor snake. Not surprisingly, swindlers and liars came to be known as snake oil salesman.

Lucky for us, the days of snake oil salesmen are in our distant past ... or are they?

• Mark Spreyer is executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Email him at stillnc@wildblue.net.

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