The BioGeek Memoirs: Garter Snake

Last summer, while walking through the garage on my way to the front, I came across a little garter snake moving across the concrete floor towards me. “Oh, no you don’t!” I told him. “Back out the door you go!”

That little guy flipped right around and speedily snaked his way right back out the way he came. “Out, out…” I told him as I continued to herd him until he was safely back out front.

Photo Credit: Inklein, downloaded from Creative Commons

I’ve had many, many encounters with garter snakes over the years. They are common in the yard where they sun themselves in the mornings. They will even climb up into shrubs as they try to catch those early morning rays: during an early morning stop at a creek getting water to use in a biology lab I accidently chose a path through a group of draped and sunning garter snakes. The students through it was just hysterical when I arrived in class that morning somewhat rumpled and covered in burrs after I had leapt around like a crazy person trying to avoid the snakes. I was picking burrs out of my fleece vest all day…

I live on the edge of the Great Plains region of the United States; fields and residential areas broken by open spaces with small waterways moving through them. These snakes are relatively small and hang out on the land and in the water catching whatever they can to eat. What do they eat? Whatever they can catch, evidently! I spent some time online trying to nail this down as I do wonder what that little snake in my yard is going to munch on (not my baby bunny… no!) and discovered that they eat earthworms, slugs (yay!), small rodents (another yay!), fish, and other small animals in the riparian area where they live.

My little snake appeared in the garage late in the summer. I seem to see a lot of them at that time of year; the babies are born alive (the mother holds onto the eggs internally until it is time for the baby snakes to emerge) and then there are little snakes (pencil thin and less than a foot long) whipping along across the sidewalk and through the lawn. These baby snakes are prime targets for the adventurous cat looking for the best cat toy ever as they frantically race back and forth through the garden and hiding along the landscaping timber.

There were few things that my cat Morgan loved more than a great garter snake chase!

I, of course, was more worried about the snake. Okay, I’m also not a fan of the cats dragging the snake around and maybe even into the house. Once I had a snake loose in an upstairs bedroom; it had been brought in by my beautiful Siamese cat. Luckily the cat’s behavior helped me locate it (it had slithered up the front of a dresser and was hiding along the edge of one of the drawers with the cat’s nose right on it…) and it was captured and returned to a safe cat-free area outdoors.

I used to have a garter snake in my 6th grade science classroom. It had a large screen-covered aquarium with a big dish of water, branches to climb on, and plants and bark to hide in on the bottom. It took me a while to figure out what to feed it… crickets just sat on its back and rode it around; the snake looked kind of sad to have its cage invaded by insects. The students and I dropped in earthworms. Nope. Lunchmeat was completely ignored. I refused to try baby mice. Finally, I bought it some feeder goldfish and dumped then into the water dish. Bingo! Obviously, this snake was pretty aquatic in its orientation, and it happily chased down and snacked on four little feeder goldfish once a month. Who knew they eat fish? Obviously, they do!

That little snake was a happy camper in its inner-city classroom for a couple years. It had a nice heat lamp that it basked under in the mornings, draped across the wooden branches in its cage. On hot afternoons it spent its time in the water dish staying cool. Overnight it burrowed down into the wood chips in the bottom of its cage. Since snakes can’t regulate their own internal temperatures like we do it moved around in its environment to keep its internal temperature in a comfortable range.

One day the cage was empty: my snake had pushed open the screen cover and escaped. Oops. Umm… of course the students noticed that he was gone. Two days later my principal crept in during class and told me that my snake was sunning itself on a windowsill in a classroom upstairs. Yep. There he was, looking exceeding pleased with himself. The students had recognized him right away. I had to buy that teacher a Starbucks gift card…

When I left that job the snake was released back into the same riparian area where he had been caught two years earlier. Hope you had a happy life, little guy! I wonder what he told the other snakes about his years in a 6th grade classroom where he learned all about the life cycle of stars, the space shuttle, ecology, weather, and some simple chemistry?

He was a well-educated snake!

P.S. My neighbors don’t enjoy the garter snakes as much as I do, but I view them as an essential part of the local backyard ecosystem. My neighbors struggle with mice that invade their garages and homes each fall, and something keeps munching on their flowers. Somehow, I don’t have the same problems. Go get those slugs, garter snakes!!

You can learn more about the snakes of Colorado here.

Author: Midnight Knitter

I weave, knit and read in Aurora, Colorado where my garden lives. I have 2 sons, a knitting daughter-in-law, a grandson and two exceptionally spoiled kittens. In 2014 I was diagnosed with a serious rare autoimmune disease called systemic sclerosis along with Sjogren's Disease and fibromyalgia.

26 thoughts on “The BioGeek Memoirs: Garter Snake”

  1. I must admit, I’m adverse to snakes in any form or type….. Just the thought is pushing adrenaline and shivers around my body ๐Ÿ™‚
    I’m glad you’re not scared of them though.
    Thanks for sharing another of your adventures

    1. I worried about that with this post. Snakes set off a lot of people, which I suspect is a biological response. I’m not a fan of all snakes and I’m really, really careful when out in rattlesnake country, but I’ve learned to be comfortable with these little garter snakes. Which is good, since they are really common here.

    1. I wasn’t really thrilled about having a snake loose in the house and was really happy to recover that garter snake the cat brought in really quickly. I understand that corn snakes are also easy to keep. Hope yours made it to the back yard okay. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Oh, one day another teacher’s FREAKING PYTHON appeared in my class. On that day I didn’t deal with snakes too well either!!! I remember the first time I touched a snake; it was a huge struggle to just reach out and touch it. It must be an instinctive aversion.

  2. Oh my goodness, that’s an impressive snake! My sons long for a pet garter snake, specifically a Californian red-sided garter snake, but such things aren’t easy to come by in the UK.

    1. I hate to mention it, but I got my snake by telling some neighborhood kids that I would pay them 5 bucks to catch me a garter. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m pretty sure that won’t work for you. The garter snakes that I see have this cute orange stripe down their backs and they are really sweet. I never let the kids in the classroom handle him as they will bite if they are too upset, but he was really easy to handle when I cleaned his cage. He would get so excited when he saw his goldfish coming!!

    1. I hadn’t seen one in a few years and then suddenly this summer there were baby snakes again. They whip along so fast in the grass I’m sure they would give your dog something fun to chase. Snake, snake!!

  3. Nope nope nopeโ€ฆI donโ€™t like snakes. In my 49 years Iโ€™ve only seen one wild snake and that was an adder sunbathing and was a few years ago, about 5 miles from our house. If I never see another that will suit me.

    1. An adder!! Yikes! I can see why you aren’t a fan of snakes. I do live in rattlesnake country and I am very careful when I’m out in the open, but so far I’ve never seen one. My cousin had a big snake in her garden that we identified by using a photo she took that was, thankfully, a benign one that munched on rodents. If it’s near the house you sure want to know that it is harmless!

  4. I love garter snakes! My mom helped out at my school when I was younger (I think it was volunteer, but I’m not sure anymore) and we used to bring home class pets over the holidays. One of them was a garter snake that we fed feeder fish to. I remember finding it fascinating to watch the snake, and I loved holding it.

    1. I have sent home many a class pet over the years. The garter snake was always one that I was really careful unless I was absolutely sure the parents were okay with it. When I worked in an inner-city school in Denver the parents were pretty involved and they really wanted to take the pets as much as the kids. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. That’s really cool! My mom did volunteer work with a wildlife rehab center at that time too, so we were used to having all kinds of animals around. She brought a rescue python in to visit my class once, and that was really neat. (That snake didn’t come home, though.)

      2. How cool. A wildlife rehab center. I live really close to the Plains Conservation Center and I have been thinking about going out there to take some pictures. I really, really want to get one of pronghorn antelope since I only see them when I’m driving on a road where I can’t pull over. Anyway, they do rattlesnake research out there and their rattlesnakes have radio transmitters implanted and are bar coded. Crazy, right?! You can scan the rattlesnake from a safe distance to identify it.

      3. Oh wow, that’s really cool! Both the distanced rattlesnake ID, and living close to a conservation center. I live in the middle of the suburbs, so we don’t get much real wildlife here, but I do love going places where I can see animals in the wild. (Or even the fake wild, to be honest…)

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