Maybe I’ve missed something over the past week, but somehow I think not.
Nowhere amid all the rejoicing about spring finally being here, at least as far as I’ve seen, has anyone said anything about the snakes.
Granted, our local species neither have the vibrant, showy colors that flowers do, nor do they have the sweet scents. (Which is not to say they don’t smell, but that’s a whole other topic.) They make no sounds, so they aren’t competing at all with the robins and cardinals that are about as vocal right now as we are ever going to hear.
To the contrary, they are scaly and slithery, and those two qualities alone tend to send most folks scurrying in whatever direction the snakes are not.
But still, I would have thought that somebody, somewhere, would have reported on what our snakes have been up to. Because it’s a story every bit as fascinating as those of the blooming flowers and singing birds.
Right now, in a rock pile, log mound or abandoned burrow – or maybe even a basement – near you, there are snakes. And they are on the move.
Still with me? Hope so!
Snakes throughout the region spend the winter-weather months – a period that this year extended through much of April – in protected spots known as hibernacula.
Old rodent burrows work great because they are already excavated (think about snake anatomy – no limbs or claws for digging – so prefab is the way to go, at least in the types of soils we have here); plus, these holes extend below the frost line, a big plus for cold-blooded creatures.
Other common places for snakes to gather are sites where trees once stood. We’ve all seen how trees decompose above ground. The same thing happens below ground, as the trees’ roots crumble and are returned to the soil. Afterward, a network of tunnels remains where the roots once were, forming a condo of cavities suitable for overwintering.
And then there are basements and crawl spaces. Cracks in foundations look very much like the gaps that naturally occur in bedrock and also lead to large chambers, just as the bedrock cracks sometimes do. Today, basements in our area far outnumber naturally occurring cracks, so it’s only natural that a few lucky individuals end up sharing their homes with a snake or three.
Other fascinating phenomena about snakes are that they usually hole up in groups and that they frequently return to the same sites year after year. I can think of a few places in our local forest preserves, as well as at least one house, where snakes annually congregate.
What’s also interesting is that for about 50 weeks out of the year, you can walk right past these places and not notice anything out of the ordinary. Even in fall, as the air temperature drops and the snakes are preparing for winter, you rarely see more than one snake at a time in these areas. But when the weather begins to warm up – hoo-whee! The snakes emerge en masse, often creating quite a spectacle.
Now, in some places, such as the Narcisse Snake Dens in Manitoba, Canada, hibernacula may contain tens of thousands of snakes. Locally, though, our numbers are much smaller – a dozen or two would be considered a good-sized group.
I suppose this is when I should also mention that the snake species we have in our area are by and large a harmless lot. Sure, if you mess with them they’ll put up a fuss, releasing an odiferous musk and evacuating their digestive system. They may also hiss and lunge and try to bite. But none of our local species is venomous (not to imply that venom is bad, it’s just a topic for another column) and all would really just prefer to be left alone.
Dark-bodied with a prominent dorsal stripe, garter snakes are by far the most commonly sighted species (we actually have two different kinds, the eastern and the plains, as well as a subspecies known as the Chicago garter in our area). But we also have western fox snakes, which are tan with brown spots; eastern milk snakes, which are brick red with cream-colored bands lined in black; northern water snakes, blotchy and brown and almost always near water; and tiny brown snakes (yep, that’s their real name), which have a brown dorsal stripe and usually aren’t much more than a foot in length.
When the sun is out, snakes will be out too, slinking below the singing birds and slithering through the blooming flowers.
It’s a sight you don’t want to miss.
Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to email@example.com.