Backyard Naturalist: A garter snake slithers into view

A garter snake is shown recently at the Unity park. Photo by Dana Wilde

You’d think that, since spiders don’t bother me (in fact, I sort of adore them) nothing much could get under my skin.

But I have to tell you, I do not like snakes.

This may or may not be genetic. A long time ago in a city far, far away I wrote a long poem exploring the notion that the human fear of reptiles was spawned millions of years ago when reptilian monsters roamed the Earth attacking and swallowing human progenitors with terrifying cold-blooded maws, which imagery got inscribed into the collective hominid memory and lives now through DNA in the form of the fear of slithering things. (The fear of spiders I cannot explain in this way, because as far as anyone knows they were never big enough to eat people.)

As it turns out I was probably not on exactly the right track with this remote theory of human psychology. Many people do not fear snakes at all. And as it happens, my own gene-bearing descendant is one of them.

To wit, my grandson Silas caught a garter snake last weekend.

As regular readers of this column know, he and I patrol my backyard regularly with the aim of catching small beings, including toads, frogs, salamanders, spiders, sow bugs, earthworms, butterflies. He’s 7 now and has gotten better and better at it, of course. He learned, for example, to stop picking up centipedes with his fingers when one stung him, finally. Anyway, the skills came into play last week when he spotted a garter snake.

He ran over to see if he could grab it, but the snake fled into the shadows under the garage. Undeterred, Silas looked under the lower shelves from every angle he could find, kept seeing the snake and grabbing for it, but missing. His determination and focus on the task were inspiring. He persisted long after I would have meandered on. Finally he crawled under the shelving. His dad and I could only see his feet, but heard him pushing debris around, and in a couple of minutes heard him say, “GOT IT!”

Silas Wilde holds his newly captured garter snake. Photo by Dana Wilde

Sure enough, he crawled back out holding a yellow and black snake about 18 inches long, calling for a container. I had to fish around in the cellar for something larger than the plastic carton we were using to hold toads.

A discussion ensued about whether to bring the snake home and keep it for a pet in the makeshift toad terrarium. Authoritative sources we consulted indicated garter snakes are indeed sometimes kept as pets. Their main food source in the wild is earthworms, plus toads, frogs, bugs, small rodents and birds, crayfish and fish when available.

Garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) are the most common reptile found in Maine and seem to keep a pretty stable population. Among the nine snake species found in the state, one, the black racer (also known as the Eastern racer or North American racer), is on Maine’s endangered list, as it has grown very scarce even in its main range in York County. There is by legend a 10th species of snake here, the timber rattlesnake, but all the authoritative sources seem pretty skeptical of its presence. The only validated sighting and capture was in the middle of the 19th century.

“Maine Amphibians and Reptiles,” my main source of information on this topic, says that sometimes a newly captured garter snake will take food from your hand. Other garter snakes, the book says, will continue to strike in self-defense for days. They may flatten their bodies and display their colors more vividly when alarmed, and when captured usually discharge “a sweetish, unpleasant-smelling musk from glands located at the base of their tails.”

As soon as we had a large enough container, Silas went to work slipping grass and sticks in to create a nice home habitat for the snake. A little while later the snake was not eating out of his hand, but he said he smelled the odor we read about in the book. It was like he had a bond with the snake. We all three had a detailed discussion of the pros, cons and practicalities of keeping the snake.

They brought it back home to Augusta with them, and the next day decided to let it go. I think freeing the creature is usually the best course of action. Silas is learning that way of thinking too. I wonder if he comes by that moral disposition genetically or environmentally. Probably both.

A few nights later I dreamed about the snake, and wasn’t the least bit bothered by it. In the dream.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at His book “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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