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Snake Friendly

Snakes in the garden are a wonderful thing!

By Jeff Rugg
March/April 2012

When I was young, a neighborhood friend was allowed to catch and keep snakes. His dad even built an enclosure that eventually held more than 50.

The good old days of easily finding that many snakes close to home in the Chicago suburbs are long gone. And it is probably partly due to kids like us catching so many of them and taking them home.

Humans have a long history of animosity towards snakes. Six-thousand-year-old writings in many religions mention snakes as being adversaries. It isn’t just women who don’t like them. Movie adventurer Indiana Jones expresses the feelings of many men when he mutters, “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

Recently there has been a change in attitude. Instead of fearing all snakes, some of us have started respecting them for their role in the natural ecosystem. As Keith Tucker, retired outdoor education instructor in Kendall County, puts it, “The biggest improvement that any landscape can have to make it friendly towards snakes would be for the homeowners not to want to kill every snake they see.”

La Grange gardener Jean Dubach goes further than that. “I am thrilled to have garter snakes in my garden. I know my garden is good because it can support snakes. I think they are beautiful.”

But the main reason to welcome snakes is that they are beneficial. They prey on less desirable wildlife such as rodents and are an indicator that the general ecosystem is in balance.

You will often see articles about attracting birds or butterflies to your yard. “If you build it, they will come,” we say. But when it comes to snakes, they might not come.

The Impediments
You can make your landscape bird- or even snake-friendly by providing the specific elements of food, water and shelter that your desired animal needs. But finding your yard will be much harder for snakes than for birds or butterflies, due to their limited ability to travel past unsuitable habitat. Says Gary Glowacki, wildlife biologist at the Lake County Forest Preserves, “The key to getting snakes after you have made your landscape more snake-friendly is being physically connected to good habitat that has snakes. A single house lot with good habitat in the middle of a bunch of landscapes with mowed lawns will have a very hard time attracting snakes.

“The biggest barrier to snakes moving into newly established and suitable habitat is roads,” he continues. “Many snakes are killed when they try to cross the road or try to sun themselves on the pavement.”

Providing the Basics
Increasing the diversity of plants in your landscape will increase the numbers of insects and other animals that are food for snakes. Small snake species that eat ground-dwelling insects and larger snakes that eat small rodents are beneficial. Ray Pawley, former curator of herpetology at Brookfield Zoo, says, “People may not want to provide good habitat for small rodents that can be eaten by snakes. But if they are feeding birds and there are a lot of seeds on the ground, the rodents are probably already there, and the snakes can then be part of the solution [of dealing with them].

“A Chicago native milk snake only needs a dozen mice a year to survive. A medium-sized one could survive just on the mice that feed on the leftover birdseed that falls to the ground under a feeder. Small snakes such as the garter, ring-neck and DeKay’s brown snake eat insects, small fish, frogs and toads and play an important role in keeping these animal populations in check.”

Many gardeners add water by using a birdbath, but water at ground level is more attractive to ground-dwelling animals that can’t climb the birdbath pedestal. Placing the birdbath on the ground or installing a recirculating waterfall is beneficial to more wildlife than a pedestal birdbath.

Shelter includes protection from weather and predators at all times of year, including nesting and hibernating seasons. As with many ground-dwelling or ground-nesting birds and mammals, the biggest predators for snakes are domestic cats, raccoons and birds.

“Snakes need the ability to regulate their temperature while still being sheltered from predators,” explains Pawley. “They need to be able to seek sun and shade in places like log piles, rock walls and along building foundations.” Adding these shelter areas helps snakes immensely.

Winter protection is another critical need. Old structures with limestone foundation blocks, or cracks in the concrete can offer protection from the cold, but snakes also need to go deep enough into the ground to be near the water table so they don’t dry out. Whether naturally occurring or man-made, such an overwintering spot is known officially as a hibernaculum. A hibernaculum is not required, but it helps keep snakes on your property without having to travel across roads to find a place to spend the winter.

Some Caveats
“Physically moving snakes to your yard does not necessarily benefit them,” cautions Gary Glowacki, “because it likely won’t increase the overall population and may actually put them in jeopardy if insufficient habitat and/or other resources (i.e. prey and cover) are not available. If you can create suitable habitat, then the snakes will naturally expand into that habitat, barring any major barriers to migration.”

Adds Ray Pawley: “We don’t want to encourage anyone to collect snakes in natural areas or forest preserves where the snake is already at home. Due to genetic differences and potential health issues, we don’t want people purchasing snakes and letting them go in their landscape. This is especially true of non-native snakes. Just look at the TV news to see the problems the Everglades and other areas of the southern states are having with non-native snakes reproducing in the wild.”

Steve Swanson, director of The Grove National Historic Landmark in Glenview agrees. “Snakes go when and where they want to, so you can’t really attract them, but any type of habitat improvement helps all types of animals. Look at the increased [animal] diversity when Ducks Unlimited [a wetland conservation group] recreates a small pond for use by ducks.”

Obviously Jean Dubach’s suburban garden is on the right track. “In my backyard I have a prairie garden that is about 30 by 40 feet,” she explains. “I have water for the birds in a dish on the ground. I suspect that snakes might be overwintering under the garage, and I have seen garter snakes warming up in the protection of my black compost bin. A lot of my neighbors also have natural garden areas in their yards.”

Not everyone will want to attract snakes. But for those who are open to the prospect, leave much of your landscape natural and let nature take its course. “Good snake habitat is not much different than good butterfly habitat,” asserts Glowacki. “Native plants, unmowed grass, and places to hide such as rotting logs and rock piles will go a long way toward benefiting all wildlife.”