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Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Today for the second time in five days I was startled nearly out of my skin by a garter snake.  I'm not sure what kind of the four different garter snakes that live in Oregon it could be: Common, Western Terrestrial, or Northwestern (although I'm pretty sure it's not a Pacific Coast Aquatic), but it's definitely some sort of garter snake.

Western Terrestrial Garter Snake.
Image from here

I'm feeling pretty ambivalent about having garter snakes in the backyard, because on the one hand, they're predators, and eat among other things, slugs, of which I have a veritable smorgasbord.  On the other hand, I would probably live a lot longer and happier without being given a heart attack every time we surprise each other.  My visceral reaction is from my limbic system, which is something that I believe we share with the lower orders, particularly reptiles, and I can only imagine that the poor snake is as scared shitless as I am.  However, that doesn't help calm down me when my heart feels like it's trying to abandon ship and jump out of my chest.  I'm not sure what kind of wear and tear the fight or flight response is having on me, or what its long term effects are.

Garter snakes are of the subfamily Natriccinae, and unlike most snakes, give birth to live young,which doesn't endear them to me any.  This second snake appeared to be shorter than the first that we saw last Saturday, and since Steve chased the first one under the house then, and this second one came from the same general area of the garden as the first, I suspect that they came from either the end of the first planter box or the second, since I still haven't closed up the holes which I would wager make a perfect doorway for a snake.  And, since I happen to know that the plastic decking from which the boxes are made heats up like hell in the sunshine, that would be the most likely place for them to be hanging out.  Especially since the second snake was at the end of the second box and disappeared so immediately and I didn't see where it went.

There are only two venomous snakes in Oregon: the Western Rattlesnake, and the Night Snake.  The rattlesnake, we all know, is dangerous to humans, but the Night Snake is not; its venomous fangs are in the back of its mouth and are used more for paralyzing prey than for striking.  Garter snakes are not, for the most part, venomous, but interestingly, a small population of Oregon garter snakes retain enough toxin in their livers from the newts they eat (and by the way, they are the only thing that can eat these particular newts) that they are poisonous to small predators like crows and foxes.  And garter snakes have been know to make people, um, swell, a little bit.

It looks like I have to get in the habit of looking for them, but in the meantime, I'm resorting to not going outside unless Steve is with me.  What a wimp, huh?  I am hoping that once I get the bark down, some time in the future, that I'll be able to see them earlier and not get so startled by their sudden and somewhat too-close-for-comfort appearance.  They don't say snake in the grass for nothing, I'm learning.


Miriam said...

I'm okay with snakes in principle, but I, too, have had a heart attack when one has slithered away from under my feet. I think it's that all the action is happening right by my feet - I could retain my equilibrium if the snake was even two feet away. Eeesh.

Chris said...

Yeah, I don't know what it is with us humans all having that kind of freak out reaction when we see snakes...some reactions obviously more freaked out than others. I think it's because we are not expecting to see them...well for one reason because they are so low to the ground, well ok, on the ground so we are a bit startled when we come across one.
I think you are very lucky to have them in your garden because as you say, they are great predators of other creepy crawlies that we don't want in the garden. I am always happy to see them in mine but wait until you see a baby with all baby things, they are really quite cute. Yes, as long as they are garter snakes in the yard and garden and not some other larger, more ominous one, then just think of them as free bug and slug control! :)

Toni aka irishlas said...

Ewww, snakes...
Why is it that we, the big people with brains, are so afraid of these little reptiles?
I know my back yard/meadow is full of them, but, fortunately, I've only seen a garter snake and a huge black snake.

Now, I always look down when I walk. I don't need any more heart attack eligible moments!

Anonymous said...

I hate snakes more than anything on the planet!!! A phobia? You got it!!!