Snakes have had a long presence in myth and history as perhaps one of the most mesmerizing of creatures. Gliding over the planet with speed and stealth, the brilliant variety of patterns and colors can both hypnotize the beholder or cause a snake to become invisible.

There are almost 3000 species on six of our seven continents and contrary to popular belief, very few of them are dangerous. In fact, snakes are extremely beneficial, eating unwanted rats and mice around the home, the same rodents who harbour ticks bearing lyme disease. They play a very important role in the food chain as their ambushing techniques allow them to prey on otherwise elusive pests like the grasshopper. If you have ever seen a swarm of grasshoppers decimating a field of growing vegetables, you can appreciate the benefits a snake has to offer. Their presence in our landscape should be valued, not only for their hunting techniques, but for the tenacity they have demonstrated in outsurviving their long distant dinosaur cousins.

Cool Facts About Snakes

  • Snakes grow continuously longer until death.
  • A timber rattlesnake will consume 2000-4000 ticks a season.
  • Snakes can feel even the slightest of movements through vibrations in the ground.
  • Snakes smell with their tongue, which is 10,000 times more sensitive than our own nose.
  • The largest snake den (a hibernaculum) in the world is located in Narcisse, Manitoba, and houses 10,000 snakes at one time.
  • A male garter snake can smell a fertile female 20 miles away.

Some of these characteristics would be considered a super power if they were attributed to a human, so it isn’t a wonder snakes have succeeded for 100 million years. Helped in part by their excellent ability to hide, snakes take advantage of abandoned gopher holes, hollow logs, and rocky crevices to stay out of sight.

Though they appear to be fierce, snakes suffer predation from foxes, racoons, birds, turtles, mongoose, and other snakes. Truth be told, snakes are very shy and fearful, preferring to go about their business in privacy and safety. They don’t want to encounter you as much as you don’t want to encounter them. What we often interpret as aggressive behaviour is usually a defence to being disturbed or handled.

The best strategy when you encounter snakes is to avoid them. Give them wide berth, do not disturb, and never attempt to capture. Even the smallest of garter snakes can get edgy in this situation and display their most ferocious self.

Common Garter Snake

If you have ever wrestled with slugs eating your plants, then the garter snake is at the top of the list of beneficial species you want to include in your garden. With over two-dozen species endemic to North America, it’s likely you already have a garter close by feeding on the pests in your landscape. Slugs, leeches, large insects, and other small rodents who feed on valuable bulbs and perennials are the primary diet of the garter snake. A garter snake will feed on any creature that it can overpower, becoming a free and easy source of natural pest control.

Garter snakes are also very adaptable and will occupy a variety of habitats. Forests, grasslands, fields and lawns are all suitable for this snake, though in Western North America, garters seem to prefer areas closer to water since they are also excellent swimmers and will include frogs as part of their diet.

The Gopher Snake

The gopher snake can be a farmer’s best friend. As the name indicates, gopher snakes feed on the small rodents that can damage crops with their prolific burrowing, but gopher snakes also feed on rats, mice, small birds, and even bats. These snakes are the perfect security force for the barn, greenhouse, or shed where rodents are attracted to loose animal feed, fertilizer, and garden crops.

Beautiful in appearance, the gopher snake is spotted with a base color of yellow to beige with dark brown spots. Though they can appear similar to rattlesnakes, they lack the white bands around the tail. These snakes can reach a length of five feet, and though their size may be intimidating, this snake is no threat to humans or pets. Instead, they are a blessing if discovered in your landscape.

The King Snake

If rattlesnakes are common in your region, then the king snake is your ally. Their diet includes rattlers and other snakes, and they are known for their immunity to venom. There are five species of king snakes present in North America, ranging in color from solid black to bright, vibrant patterns. One species of king snake, the milk snake, can be confused with the feared coral snake.

Milk Snake

Milk Snake

Coral snake

Coral Snake

“Red on yellow kills a fellow, red on black, venom they lack.”

King snakes are constrictors and not venomous at all. They are considered the strongest of all constrictors relative to body size. This strength likely evolved from feeding on other snakes that require less oxygen than other animals, thus requiring a greater force to suffocate them. This is the reason they are king.

But What's That Smell?

Ah yes, the smell of a snake is repulsive at best, which is exactly why a snake uses it. The odor many snakes release when under stress is their way of making themselves less appealing as a delicious meal. This scent is created in a specialized gland called a cloacal gland and can be found in both sexes. If under attack, the snake will writhe around covering a predator with the foul substance in hopes of dispelling the enemy. The smell is different for different species, but it’s often described as the smell of a rotting carcass. You think this is unattractive, but in some species, such as the garter, this smell can be very appealing and actually attract a mate.

Snakes Are Under Threat

Humans are encroaching on the territory of snakes faster than the snakes can keep up, and they are rapidly being pushed out of dens that they have used for generations. Snake dens or hibernacula can house a single snake or thousands depending upon the species. Of no interest to developers, these dens are plowed over to make room for urban development. New roadways restrict safe travel corridors for snakes and limit foraging habitat. Waterways and swamplands are drying up, forcing snakes to seek out new habitats to hydrate and feed.

A few snakes lost could be thought of as no big deal, but considering how much they benefit our environment, it’s in our best interest to protect a species that has survived 900,000 years longer than we have.

How to Make Your Garden More Snake-Friendly

  • To preserve snakes in your own landscape, provide areas of refuge to protect them from their many predators. Rock piles, hollow logs, a sheet of metal, or plywood all serve as hiding places for these beneficial reptiles when they’re not out sunning themselves during the day.
  • Snakes love the sun! Garters will often bask in the grass on a hot day. Do them a favor and prior to mowing your lawn, have a little walk about to ensure they will not be in the way of the mower blades.
  • No pesticides! Harsh chemicals such as slug bait are especially harmful to snakes when they feed on a slug that has ingested the pesticide. Instead, look to non-toxic methods of pest control or physical controls that provide effective, long-term solutions.
  • Be aware when landscaping that the rocks or log you are about to move may have a snake harbouring underneath. Move carefully.
  • Imitate nature. Focus on diversity and non-linear plantings in your landscape. This will encourage a balanced ecosystem and provide protected corridors for snakes to move around.

The number of non-venomous snakes killed because of myth and fiction has led to many formally prolific species now being on the endangered list. If we aren’t careful, we could lose a very important animal in our ecosystem and allow the pests they have fed upon the opportunity to flourish.

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