Friday, June 13, 2008

Meet the neighbors: plains garter snake

We've been seeing quite a few plains garter snakes (Thamnophis radix) in our yard and garden lately. This little beauty (in my head, I'm hearing that phrase in Steve Irwin's voice) had just eaten a large earthworm—along with small amphibians, one of the most common prey items for garter snakes.

The other local garter snake, the red-sided (T. sirtalis parietalis), I've never found around the house, possibly because we don't have water nearby. Both species can be found in aquatic habitats, but I suspect the red-sided is more water-dependent. If I get out fishing anytime soon, I'll try to photograph a red-sided for comparison.

One of my redtails, Pocomoke, was a confirmed ophidiovore. We hawked rabbits (or attempted to) well into March, but on warm days he vastly preferred to fill up on snakes, especially garters. (I brought Pocomoke to Nebraska from Georgia, and since he was trapped in the aftermath of a hurricane and later moulted into an unusually colorful plumage, I always suspected he might be a Florida redtail, Buteo jamaicensis umbrinus. Sub-tropical origin might have accounted for his taste for serpents.) Anyway, I'm glad that our yard (including the area around the mews) can serve as a refuge for these beautiful reptiles.


ginkgoleaf said...

"Y'er all right, mate" - I really miss Steve.

My mother has always been petrified of snakes. Don't even say the word snake or she won't sleep a wink that night. My dad, on the other hand, adores snakes. As a boy, he would collect snakes in sacks and then keep them in his room, resulting in complete terror on his sisters' part.

Anyway, my dad did not want me to grow up afraid of snakes like my mother. When I was about four years old, he took me to some sort of nature center. They wrapped a snake - no idea what kind - around my arm like a bracelet. I was a little scared at the beginning but ended up feeling just fine about having a live snake bracelet. I'm really glad my dad had the wisdom to expose me to a snake early in my life. Now, if only I hadn't developed an irrational fear of cockroaches...

Mark Churchill said...

I have quite a few snake-haters/ophidiophobes in my family as well. I think, despite some evidence that fear of snakes is common to many primates, that this is largely a learned response, and therefore culturally "contagious". The cure, as your dad evidently knows, is early and sympathetic exposure.

Earlier this spring, Ellie and I found several red-sided garter snakes while trout fishing. (Wish I'd had my camera with me then.) At one point we gave up fishing altogether in favor of handling the snakes; I think I had three and she had one or two more, and we hadn't exhausted the supply. Some kids came over and the oldest, a girl of about 12 or 13 I would guess, said she couldn't stand "slimy snakes". I assured her that they weren't slimy, and in fact felt a lot like leather; explained that the flickering of the forked tongue wasn't a threat but a way to gather information through smell. Eventually she summoned up the courage to touch one, and then to hold one. The payoff: I overheard her telling her parents about the encounter, saying "I used to be scared of snakes, but now I think they're pretty cool." A total change of attitude—a conversion—in five minutes? If only education could always be that easy!

Cockroaches, or "palmetto bugs" as genteel Georgians call them, are another story...