Exploring The Last Green Valley – Garter snakes like frogs, and their freedom

Exploring The Last Green Valley – Garter snakes like frogs, and their freedom

On one of those unseasonably cool days this month, I ventured out to remove the cover off my large compost pile and discovered a surprise underneath the tarp. As I pulled back the edges to expose the compost, out slithered two snakes. Like most folks, my first instinct was to jump back, but on closer examination I realized they were garter snakes, our most common reptile of the slithering kind. They had discovered the heat-generating compost pile and were enjoying the opportunity to keep warm on a cool spring day.

Seeing those garter snakes reminded me when, at the age of 13, I had a pet garter snake – though only for two days. My friend Brian and I had gone out specifically looking to catch snakes. We searched among the tall grass along the edge of a local pond, peering into the green mass of weeds for our serpentine prey.

We brought small forked sticks and dark colored socks with us. I soon discovered a small garter snake curled up in the grass and caught it quickly by placing the forked end of the stick behind its head, pinning it to the ground. I then carefully picked up the snake from behind its head and placed it headfirst into the sock. Thinking it was a nice safe hole, the snake slid right into the sock. I knotted the top shut and carried my new pet home.

I had a large glass terrarium and filled it with grass, some leaf litter, a bowl of water and branches so as to make my garter snake’s new home as much like its natural habitat as possible. My plan was to catch earthworms and insects for its food.

On the second day I took the snake out of the terrarium and let it slither back and forth from one hand to the other. It soon tired of this hand-to-hand slithering to nowhere, and suddenly wrapped itself tightly around my wrist and began to squeeze. I calmly unwrapped it from my wrist, carried it outside and let it go. Clearly this garter snake, though small and harmless, was not interested in the leisurely life of pet-hood. And so ended my youthful garter snake adventure.

Here are some interesting facts about Thamnophis sirtalis — the common garter snake. This information comes from one of the Stokes Nature Guides, one of my favorite sources of information about wildlife. The guide I reference here is specifically the “Stokes Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles” by Thomas F. Tyning

The garter snake is our most common and widespread snake species and is easily recognized by the yellow stripe that runs down the length of its black back, and the two yellow stripes along its sides. The stomach can be tan, black, greenish or red. The tongue is red with a black tip.

The common garter snake can grow to a length of over four feet, though most are much smaller and I have to admit to never seeing one more than two or three feet long.

There are several different species of garter snakes in North America, though most need careful observation to distinguish one species from another. Here in New England we have the typical black with yellow stripes variety.

The female garter snake has a shorter tail than the males and has a bulge where the body and tail meet due to the large scent glands at the base of the female’s tail. The female will appear to be massive in size when near birth. The males have a smooth transition of body width and an even taper of the body and tail.

Garter snakes’ breeding season begins in the spring as soon as they emerge from their winter dens. The gestation period is about five months and the snakes grow to maturity in about two years when they are about a foot in length.

The garter “snakelings” are born alive and appear in a transparent sac out of which they emerge soon after birth. The young are seven to nine inches long and are identical to the adults in appearance. The garter snake can birth from just a few to up to 80 young from mid-August to late September. The young are independent from birth and are known to congregate in numbers when very young. They can live up to eight years old.

Garter snakes do not constrict their prey as do other snake species. They simply grab the prey with their mouth and work it into their throat. They will eat earthworms, insects, frogs, salamanders, birds and small mammals such as mice.

One of their favorite foods is frogs, and the snakes can be found hunting near pond edges in tall grass and weeds. They are known especially to hunt for young frogs that are in the transformation stage between tadpole and frog – when they are at their most vulnerable in development.

Here in The Last Green Valley we have several snake species, but the one you will probably see at least once or twice a year is the common garter snake. They are amazing animals and are to be enjoyed and observed, but take it from me they are best left in their natural habitat.

We live in a wonderful region full of inspiring cultural and amazing natural resources. I hope you’ll join me and others as we work to care for, enjoy, and pass on this beautiful place we call home – The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.