With the arrival of warm weather, it is likely that gardeners and yard workers may soon come into contact with snakes.
I am writing this week’s column on behalf of the snakes and asking that you who see them give them the benefit of the doubt before grabbing a shovel.
Roughly 80 percent of Earth’s 2,700 species of snakes (that’s 2,160 species) belong to one giant family: the Colubridae. These snakes are not venomous and pose no threat to humans. North America has 115 species of snakes, but here in New York we have only 17, 14 of which are harmless.
Of these species, the most commonly seen is probably the garter snake. The most widely distributed snake in all of the United States, its range extends from Quebec to Florida, west to California and British Columbia. The only places where garter snakes cannot be found are the arid Southwest and the driest parts of the Great Plains.
The standard model for the garter snake is: small head, large eyes, an average maximum size of no more than 24 inches in length, and a slender body that is either black or dark-brown and marked with three parallel yellow stripes running the length of the body. The scales of the belly are yellow.
Here in the eastern United States, however, we have Eastern garter snakes, which are different in appearance. The black on the back may be broken with lighter patches of greenish scales that give the snake a checkered appearance.
They get around
You can expect to run across a garter snake just about anywhere. I have encountered them in dry forests, on top of mountains and in rocky areas, but their favorite habitat is in wet fields and around ponds. Garter snakes feed on frogs, toads, salamanders and insects — all of which can be found in wet places.
Rarely, garter snakes attain a length of 4 feet, at which point they are able to prey on larger animals such as mice and small fish. I have seen many garter snakes in the wild, but I have never seen one much over 2 feet long. However, they can put on quite a show of being dangerous.
To do this, a snake will curl itself into the classic pose of a rattlesnake. If pressed, the snake will even lash out and try to strike, but don’t be fooled. Even the hardest bite from a garter snake is nothing compared to the bite of an angry chickadee. To the snake, however, it is a last-chance act of desperation — the only attack it is capable of.
This is the breeding season for garter snakes and from June to August the largest breeding females may give birth to about 20 live young. Needless to say, these baby snakes are very tiny, and very cute. They make their living by eating the smallest of animals and must do a great deal of growing before they can tackle frogs.
Stop and look
So, keeping all of this in mind, don’t freak out the next time you see a snake. Instead, try looking at it for a minute before you do anything else.
If you are lucky, the snake will freeze in place to try to avoid detection, which will afford you the opportunity to look at the patterns on its scales. Then find a snake book and try to look it up. Odds are you will have found a new neighbor that will make your yard a richer and more interesting place to be in.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.