Snakes in the Garden

Our snake at the bottom of the stairs has been quite active lately. I’ve seen it most days this week, basking in the early morning sun. This is a wonderful time of year for snakes. It’s warm in the evening, warm in the morning, and not too hot during the day. Food and water sources abound. Except for the territorial hawks, there isn’t much to be worried about.

The snake under the rock

The snakes in my garden are garter snakes. I know of at least two. The big one lives under the sidewalk and rests under a big rock I put at the bottom of the deck stairs. The smaller one found its way into our shower and I released it near the sidewalk in April (see my blog “Gardens and a Colorado Spring“). It was still cool during the day and I found the two of them curled up together under the rock a few weeks after that. I’m not sure where it resides now.

The smaller "shower" snake

According to there are five garter snake species found in Colorado. Mine look slightly different from each other; I think the big one is a Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix) and the smaller is a Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Or maybe a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans). I can be wrong about that because it’s difficult to find pictures of snakes that looked exactly like them. Garter snakes can have different coloring even when they’re the same species. If anyone has a definitive answer on these two please let me know.

Garter snakes are the most common snake in North America and have habitats that range from ponds and streams to rocks and fields to homes and gardens. They are opportunistic hunters and adapt to eat what they can find. Almost all information sources reference their consumption of fish and amphibians, but in my high-altitude, dry, prairie landscape they’re probably feeding on slugs, grasshoppers, and earthworms.

If they can find a baby bird or egg, they’ll eat it. In my garden I hope they’re feeding on mice, voles, and baby gophers. Though that may be too much to hope for.

They don’t grow much longer than 3 1/2 feet long and my big one is at least three feet long. The last time I saw the little one it was bigger than when I released it, at a respectable two feet length. Those are estimates; I haven’t caught and stretched them along a tape measure.

I’ve only ever seen these two and I don’t know their respective sex. Typically females are larger than males so I may have a momma snake under my rock. Garter snakes bear live young and the new snakes are born in late summer or early fall. That time is fast approaching so I’m on the lookout for signs of 20 baby snakes. A typical litter is 10 to 30 snakes and they’re independent at birth. Eager to feed right away, my earthworm population is in peril if that happens.

I’m a huge advocate of attracting wildlife to the garden, good and bad. It’s illegal to kill nonvenomous snakes in Colorado and I wouldn’t want to. They play a role in the environment that is ultimately beneficial. While I may lose some earthworms that are aerating the soil, I’ll also lose the slugs that eat my strawberries and Hostas. A baby bird or small egg in a nest near the ground may be devoured, but so too will the destructive vole hiding in a tunnel near my gardens.

In a few months when the weather grows colder the snakes will enter their winter den, a spot usually shared by many other snakes. They’ll enter their hibernation, which is actually a “brumation” period. It’s a type of dormancy when they save metabolic energy and huddle in a mass of other snakes to conserve their body heat. I don’t know where the brumation den is, but it could be a few miles away as all the snakes in the area might gather together.

In preparation for that period they feed more and begin to store fat. That may be why I’ve seen my snake so much lately. It may be returning from an early morning feeding excursion. It is welcome to as many grasshoppers and slugs as it can find.

The first few times I saw it I was startled by the snake. Now I look for it every day just to be sure it’s still there. While garter snakes actually do relatively well in captivity, I have no desire to keep it as a pet. It has a place in my garden and it has a purpose and I do what I can to avoid interfering with the natural cycle.

My wife named it Joe for the benefit of our grandson. It was fun for her to describe my encounter with it in the shower and how we (the snake and I) had a conversation as I released it back into the wild at the base of the stairs. At four years old he was anxious to hear about what the snake said and he wanted to see it when he stayed overnight recently. To our mutual pleasure it was sunning itself when they ventured out the next morning. An exciting morning for a little boy.

Though Joe would truly be the name of the smaller snake, and we haven’t really named the big one, it was an experience that that was rewarding for all of us. Children should have the opportunity to realize that nature is wondrous in all of its forms. Snakes don’t need to be feared. We should marvel at all of the animals. I don’t particularly enjoy the stealthy deer and gophers making a mess of my garden, but I stop and stare in awe every time I actually see them.

The snake under the rock helps remind me that my gardens and my role in this landscape are just a small piece in a much larger picture. It’s a bit humbling. But it also helps validate my actions. By encouraging diversity I’m rewarded with more of it. The hummingbirds, jays, foxes, and dogs share the land along with the snakes, gophers, and deer. They go about their lives with little fear of how I’ll intervene. I like it that way.


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