Snake information continued

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This is the fourth in a series about dangerous and irritating Eastern Washington Critters.

Today we continue our discussion about snakes in Eastern Washington with information from Washington State Fish and Wildlife and other Internet sources, along with my observations and experiences.

Last week we learned garter snakes, rubber boas and Western rattlesnakes bear live young from eggs retained in the body until hatching. All other Washington snakes lay eggs in protected areas where the eggs receive enough external heat to hatch. This is amazing to me, as the young are hatched from eggs inside the female. Wow.

Young are born from July through September and fend for themselves after hatching. Young snakes grow rapidly and reach sexual maturity in two or three years.

Snakes are preyed upon by badgers, coyotes, foxes, opossums, raccoons, skunks, weasels, great blue herons, hawks, eagles, and owls. Monte Holm once told me about watching his sheep dog in a confrontation with a rattlesnake.

The dog circled the snake, which was coiled and ready to strike. The dog continued to circle the snake for some time, until the snake became uncoiled and began to slither out of the area.

This is the action the dog wanted. As soon as the snake was angling away, with the head away from the dog, it rushed in and grabbed the snake behind the head and broke the snake’s spine, killing it. I actually found an Internet video showing this happening, with a coyote and a rattlesnake, but couldn’t find it today.

Near human habitation, humans, domestic cats and dogs, lawn mowers, weed-whackers, and vehicles fatally wound or kill snakes. I would say most snakes found near homes are killed. A friend told about finding a rattlesnake on his lawn, a few yards from his front door.

He went and picked up a garden hoe and approached the snake, intending to kill it. His wife was standing several yards behind him. His plan was to strike the snake several times, but as he hit the snake the first time and raised the hoe to strike again, the snake went up with the hoe and landed behind him close to his wife. Yes, they are still married.

I’ve killed several rattlers with a garden spade, which is long enough to approach the snake without danger. These days the spade is used to pick up the snake and move out of the trail.

Garnet and I were fishing Rocky Ford Creek one spring. Garnet had asked me if the snakes were out yet? Of course, I said no. After a few minutes of fishing, she said, “Dennis the stick in front of me is moving.” It was a rattlesnake, so we moved to a different location.

Garter snakes

Garter snakes have lived as long as 18 years in captivity. Such ages might be exceptional for wild snakes, but little is known on this subject.

Three species of garter snakes occur in Washington. Small garter snakes eat earthworms and slugs; larger snakes include amphibians, small rodents, nestling birds, and fish in their diet.

Garter snakes survive in suburbia and towns because they give birth to live young and do not require safe places for their eggs. Their name comes from their alleged resemblance to the garters once worn by men to hold up their socks.

When disturbed, garter snakes will try to escape, but if threatened they may strike, bite and smear foul-smelling anal secretions on your hands. A bite from one of these nonvenomous snakes may be alarming, but will rarely break the skin.

The common garter snake is found from coastal and mountain forests to sagebrush deserts, usually close to water or wet meadows or your garden. Next to the Northwestern garter snake, this species is the most frequently encountered snake. It has brightly colored stripes (yellow, green, blue) that run lengthwise along its body and a grayish-blue underside. It grows to two to three feet in length.

The Western terrestrial garter snake occurs in a wide variety of habitats and, despite its name, it spends a lot of time in water. This garter snake is usually gray-brown or black, with a dark, checkered pattern between yellow stripes.

Gopher/bull snake

The gopher snake, also known as the bull snake, is found in warm, dry habitat, deserts, grasslands, and open woodlands. It’s a robust snake, measuring three to four feet in length, with dark blotches against tan along its back.

The gopher snake is often mistaken for a rattlesnake, owing to its coloration and its impressive display of coiling, striking and loud hissing. It will also vibrate the tip of its tail in dry grass and leaves, further mimicking a rattlesnake. However, it is not venomous. It is a constrictor, killing prey, mostly small rodents, by squeezing them until the prey suffocates.

This snake is aggressive. I have had them rear up, looking like a king cobra, and hiss. My action is to always get out of the way of a bull snake.

Next week: More info about Washington snakes

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