Volume 13, Issue 28 ~ July 14 - 20, - 2005

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by by Gary Pendleton

Back-Door Visitors: The Eastern Garter Snake

You’ve seen the cute little signs gift shops sell to hang near your door. Warning: The Cat from Hell Lives Here is a popular one. Another says Backdoor Friends are Best. These seem to be for houses that have backdoors that get a lot of traffic, saving the front door just for show.

My house doesn’t have that kind of back door; the front is the front, and the back is way around back, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have backdoor friends. My backdoor friends would not be welcome in, around or anywhere near many homes. My backdoor friends are snakes.

Garter snakes, actually, and Eastern garter snakes to be precise. They are perfectly harmless; indeed, they are good to have around. That’s what I keep telling myself.

The deck off my backdoor gets plenty of afternoon sun, so it’s a good place for snakes to bask in the heat. If disturbed by my comings and goings, they can quickly slip away between the boards to hide. I’ll admit that it can be disconcerting to see snakes by the door and know they are only a few inches from my feet, which might be shod in sandals. But I tolerate their presence.

I think to myself, it is better to have the dreadful little predators around than to suffer a plague of mice or other vermin. Yep, that’s what I tell myself.

Petersons Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians lists 13 species of garter snake, including the Chicago, the short headed, the checkered and the wandering. They make themselves at home in a great variety of habitats. So wherever you go in this great land of ours, there are sure to be local garter snakes.

Are they in fact controlling my mouse population? The garter snake’s diet is diverse, but small mammals such as mice are not at the top of their list of food preferences. Roger Conant, author of the afore-mentioned Petersons Guide, says their diet consists “chiefly of frogs, toads, salamanders, fish, tadpoles and earthworms.” None of these has ever been a problem around our place, although mice have been. So I guess the snakes have been doing a good job — just not the job I want them to do.

Poor little garter snakes: Nobody seems to love them. I know of perfectly nice people who will kill them on sight. Who will defend the snake?

Paul Revere for one. He used the image of a snake as a symbol of the 13 colonies above the words, Don’t Tread on Me. It was, of course, a warning to the British Crown. It is July, the month we celebrate our nation’s independence, so I’ll try not to tread on the garter snakes as I step out my backdoor.

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