Wednesday, April 13, 2011
I saw my first-of-the-spring garter snake in February. I hadn't seen one since November when 5, 8, and, in the end, 10 snakes slithered over our feet as we sat around the fire pit. In 2009, when I first discovered we had a brushpile full of garter snakes, I told everyone I knew. Oh, it's not that I haven't seen snakes before, but my urban dwelling is pretty darned urban with no corridors to nearby natural areas, just a grid pattern of streets and neighbors who use power tools and mowers every weekend.
But garter snakes in Missouri are pretty well-adapted to urban living, so my discovery of them was no surprise to my friends who grew up in St. Louis. One of my St. Louis friends grew up in nearby Berkeley, and he writes this about the garter snakes in his neighborhood:
"I must have picked up two hundred of them, all writhing in a mass, picked them up by the handful. I threw them in a pillowcase to bring home to show my mom. When I opened the pillowcase to show her, she immediately screamed, told me we couldn't keep them in the house, so we took them back to the old lot and let them go. There must have been thousands of garter snakes in Berkeley in the 1960s."
Old abandoned houses with brush and tall weeds are great places for garter snakes in urban Missouri. I'm not a squatter living in an abandoned bungalow, but I've been managing a brush pile-log pile-kindling pile for several years now, and the snakes love it. I was actually told last night by a former director of a state government agency that I'm violating some code with my brushpile, but he added, "ah, hell, nobody ever comes to your neighborhood to check on things like that...." My coworkers won't even come to my neighborhood unless I allow them to pack heat, which I won't (unless it's a pellet gun for the stray cowbird who arrived this spring).
Anyway, garter snakes are among the Missouri snakes that remain out of their hibernation chambers for the longest period each year. In the Ozarks, they emerge in March and remain active until November. On warm, sunny winter days they may come out for short periods. Garter snakes are highly variable in their color forms. In Missouri, we have two subspecies of garter snakes, the eastern garter snake and the red-sided garter snake. The dividing line for these subspecies is not the Missouri River, but a diagonal that runs northeast to southwest from Clark County in the Dissected Till Plains to McDonald County in the Elk River Hills. The eastern garter snake is in St. Louis and the red-sided garter snake is in Kansas City.
Breeding normally commences in the spring shortly after they emerge from their winter quarters. Multiple males form an aggregate around females, and much writhing occurs. St. Louisians may have seen this behavior before in those old lots in Berkeley with hundreds of animals in one small area; I feel certain that herpetology-minded folks have, too, seen this, but I witnessed it for the first time this weekend while setting out broccoli starts. First, there were three snakes. Two more snakes showed up. Five more came out of the brushpile and two came from the compost heap to add more calculated chaos to the scene. At one point, there were 20 snakes in a tangled mess. (So much for my hopes of having American toads in my yard.)
As I understand, they breed in large congregations and then disperse throughout the general area. The young are born in late summer or early fall. According to The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, litter sizes can range from 4 to 85 individuals, and one individual was documented with a litter of 103 young. My marginal urban neighborhood (which I love) that even government regulators are scared to visit may harbor as many garter snakes as the city of St. Louis one day!
Posted by Allison Vaughn at 8:03 PM