Serpents in the Garden

A young Ratsnake warms itself on a rock. Photo by Kevin Urbanek

If your first glance at this photo caused an involuntary shudder, you are not alone. Fear of snakes may be the most common phobia according to psychologists. Even people who are not actually terrified of snakes generally do not get a “warm fuzzy feeling” upon spying one.

Snakes have long been cast as the villain in mythology and folklore, but it is time to change our attitude towards snakes because the vast majority that you may encounter in our area are not only harmless, but likely very beneficial to you.

In the Grand Valley the three snakes that you are most likely to see are the Terrestrial Gartersnake, the Bullsnake and the Great Plains Ratsnake. None of these snakes is venomous or dangerous to humans and all three of them can benefit your backyard by reducing pests at no cost or inconvenience to you.

A Terrestrial Gartersnake, perhaps the most frequently seen snake in the Grand Valley. Photo by Kevin Urbanek
A Terrestrial Gartersnake, perhaps the most frequently seen snake in the Grand Valley. Photo by Kevin Urbanek

The Terrestrial Gartersnake, which many people call by its nickname “garden snake,” is one of many species of gartersnakes in North America. This is the snake most commonly seen in the suburbs, but they live in a variety of habitats and have even been found in the alpine tundra at 13,000 ft.

Why do you want a gartersnake in your garden? Because they eat insects, including grasshoppers, as well as slugs. Really large gartersnakes will also eat mice. If you like your lettuce without holes and your cherry tomatoes un-nibbled, a gartersnake is nice to have around. Gartersnakes rarely bite, and then only if you try to pick them up. Their teeth are tiny and razor sharp and I know from first hand experience that their bite is no worse than a paper cut. A gartersnake’s first line of defense when snatched up by a predator or curious human is to release a foul smelling musk substance all over the offender’s hands. It stinks, but it washes off easily.

Our other common snake, the Great Plains Ratsnake is also known as a corn snake because it often hangs around places where grains like corn are stored. It doesn’t eat corn– it eats the mice and rats that eat corn. Ratsnakes are frequently found in barns and sheds where rodents hang out. If you find one in your shed, count yourself lucky and let the snake go on its merry way. With a ratsnake around, you’ll have fewer rodents raiding your birdseed stores, making nests in your stored camping gear or potentially exposing you to Hanta virus.

A frightened Bullsnake performs a threat display to try to scare away a potential predator. Photo by Kevin Urbanek
A frightened Bullsnake performs a threat display to try to scare away a potential predator. Photo by Kevin Urbanek

Like the ratsnake, the Bullsnake (also known as a Gophersnake) is an effective rodent killer. Bullsnakes are often mistaken for rattlesnakes and killed because when threatened they mimic the posture of a rattlesnake to scare off predators. Frightened Bullsnakes may even vibrate their tails against the ground to make a rattle-like sound.

There are only two venomous snakes in our area, the Prairie Rattlesnake and the Midget Faded Rattlesnake, and “sightings of these snakes are rare” according to Dan Neubaum, wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. They are usually seen on rocky outcrops, mesa tops and the scree slopes of canyon country—not in backyards. These snakes are generally shy and just want to be left alone- that’s why they have a rattle to warn people and other threats to “please go away.”

A Midget Faded Rattlesnake is well camouflaged against the desert ground. Photo by Kevin Urbanek.
A Midget Faded Rattlesnake is well camouflaged against the desert ground. Photo by Kevin Urbanek.

There is a saying that your risk of snakebite increases with the “T” factors: tequila, testosterone, teasing, etc. That’s because a significant proportion of rattlesnake bites are suffered by young men who get drunk and decide it’s a good idea to tease or pick up a snake. Rattlesnakes do not want to bite you. They typically only bite when stepped on or grabbed. If you can avoid getting drunk and teasing snakes, you have already substantially reduced your risk of snakebite, beyond that, the best advice it to be aware of your surroundings. If you are in rattlesnake country, watch where you are putting your hands and feet. Rattlesnakes like to hide from their predators and are well camouflaged. Don’t step anyplace you can’t see clearly or reach into rock crevices. Keep your ears open and listen for a warning rattle- don’t wear headphones. Wear study boots or shoes that protect your feet so that if you do step in the wrong place, a bite won’t break the skin.

If you are interested in learning more about our local reptiles, check out Colorado Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (https://www.facebook.com/groups/163973464573/) which shares information and runs “herping” field trips. “Herping” is the reptile and amphibian equivalent of “birding.” The website http://www.coloradoherping.com documents Kevin Urbanek’s adventures herping in Colorado with his young son and is the source of the wonderful photos that accompany this article.

Maybe learning about the benefits of backyard snakes hasn’t turned you into a snake-lover. But at the very least, I hope it has convinced you to live and let snakes live, even when you find them in your yard. They are good additions to the garden.

This article first appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on June 27, 2015. You can read it there by following this link: http://www.gjsentinel.com/outdoors/articles/snakes-alive Special thanks to Kevin Urbanek for the great snake photos.

Serpents in the Garden