Wild Life / garter snake

they make friends

Hi, friends (welcome to new readers!) — This is issue #22 of my newsletter about animal encounters. In the last few weeks I’ve noticed a general shift in energy, a get-outside-springiness, and so these will arrive biweekly for now. This week, I’m looking at garter snakes and am keeping it simple because I learned one stunning fact: they have friends. As always, you can add your stories to the comments, or reply directly to this email. — Amy Jean

When the kids were small, I used to push them on a tricycle, one at a time, through the wooded area in front of our home. It’s a bumpy patch of land, but there’s enough of a path that it made some sense. Once, when we had gotten up a little speed in this mom-powered carnival ride, I noticed something moving fast in the grass: “Wow, look at that worm!”

We chased the worm for a few yards until we got to the base of an oak tree. The worm—I quickly realized it was a young snake—turned to look at me. It literally stopped and turned its head to look at me, very steady, very even, like it was confronting me at my level, like it was asking: “What?” It was a defensive posture, no doubt, and very compelling. The snake was not much bigger than a skinny carrot.

I blurted out, “Sorry!” The snake turned back down and slid under a shrub. That was my first encounter with a garter snake. Since then, I’ve seen many: cuddled up under leaf piles; coiled tightly beneath a creeping evergreen; sipping the air under a burning bush. A couple of weeks ago, the kids and I surprised another skinny snake under an oak. Again, it kind of reared up to look at us, its small black eyes shiny and steady. “Hey, snake.” This one quickly relaxed and then, in a bizarre and miraculous way, disappeared down a hole the size of a penny. It reminded me of someone zipping up a raincoat or slurping a strand of spaghetti.

Garter snakes are common, harmless snakes ranging across most of North and Central America. If I think about how immediately strange they are—no limbs, scales covered in a fatty lubricant, forked tongues; they swallow their food whole, gather in “mating balls,” give birth to dozens of live baby snakes—I get a little overwhelmed.

But recent studies suggest that garter snakes share something important with us. They are social creatures who seek out their favorite individuals, effectively curling up with friends (see link below). In recent years, there has been more of an interest in studying the social aspects of animal life, and discovering how individuals vary (some snakes are shy, some are bold, for example). Learning this has shifted my thinking of snakes completely.

I was so taken aback by that tiny snake years ago turning around to look at me. Going eye-to-eye with a small serpent is a strange thing, and I can’t believe it happened again just the other day. In that one-second encounter, knowing behind those shiny eyes is a whole potential world of complex relationships, my understanding of another life expanded a thousand degrees. I had, effectively, made a new friend.

I held out my phone while the snake stuck out its tongue, 2020.

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Garter snake links

  • Read about the social studies of garter snakes at Smithsonian and Science magazines. Highly recommend; it’s fascinating to be at the beginning of new research.

  • The name “garter” possibly came from a misunderstanding of the German “Garten,” or it refers to the long stripes on the snake, which look a bit like the garters that hold up socks. This blog entry by Colin Purrington dives in to the etymology.

Animal encounters in recent comments

Also

  • My snake in the sun drawing is for sale, and I’ve posted details on my sale site, here. Part of the proceeds will go to Save the Snakes.

  • Next time: spring peepers!


Wild Life #22 / This newsletter is a small adventure about the life around us. Please share with friends and family who would enjoy. Thank you!