Grit Blogs > Nature and Gardening at the Edge

Snakes in the Garden

It is scaly and slithering through the flowerbeds! Some ask ‘what kind is it?’ and others simply run. Although there are many kinds of snakes that seem to inhabit Colorado, about 90 percent of the sightings in my area involve three common types: rattlesnakes, bull snakes and garter (or garden snakes). With one of them poison and two harmless, what kind is a snake is an important issue?

In my area, especially where there is irrigation; there are few rattlesnakes. But almost everyone is aware of the possibility of them and watch where they are stepping. They can usually be identified by their aggressive disposition but sometimes are guarding their young, sleeping or sluggish from a recent meal. It is important to positively identify them. Rattlesnakes and bull snakes superficially look quite similar in coloration and scale patterns. Of course the rattlesnakes have the wider head and the rattle on the tail or at least a blunt tail where a rattle once was. Mistaken identify seems to be a problem. Many snakes that I see dead on the road are the harmless bull snakes. Possibly drivers think to kill first and identify later? Another fact worth knowing when identifying snakes is that bull snakes will imitate the pose and even the rattle sound of rattlesnakes. Apparently them make a sound similar to the rattle with their mount. Always get that tail in sight for positive identification.

This week, I had a 4-foot bull snake in my yard. It is admittedly startling at first sight. Before getting very close I ascertained that it was a bull snake and after a few minutes retreated to allow it to go on its way. Many old timers say that bull snakes kill rattlesnakes. I can’t confirm that from personal experience. Certainly bull snakes eat a lot of things that we generally do not like around, like mice and other rodents. Whether babies that are a foot or so long or mature ones like the one I encountered, I let them go on their way.

Garter snakes, called garden or gardener snakes by some, are completely different in appearance. Their stripy pattern is often highlighted by an orange stripe down the back. Top size for them is probably 18 to 24 inches. I know that I have two or three resident ones and try hard to avoid them while mowing. They will sometimes try for concealment but often times make a hasty retreat. Their love of tall grass is probably due to their diet of grasshoppers and other insects and occasional rodents.

Either garter or bull snakes can be easily caught and handled safely. I would not consider them pets, as they much prefer the freedom of the countryside to being your companion. An article in the Colorado Outdoors says that a third of rattlesnake bites are due to people attempting to handle or kill rattlesnakes. Hmmm, that tells me that it is pretty easy to avoid being bit and that the best bet is to leave them alone. Of course it is more of a challenge to those who live in the foothills and other areas where they may encounter them at any time and place on their property. It is worth knowing that they are only found up to a certain elevation, varying with latitude, due to the cooler temperatures.

If you encounter a snake, give it plenty of room until you can identify it. If it is a species that you can have safely in your lawn or garden, let it go on its way and enjoy fewer insects and rodents.

  A garter snake surveys an artificial pond to determine the next move