Q-C hospitable area for snakes

Originally Posted Online: April 14, 2012, 7:30 pm
Last Updated: April 14, 2012, 11:48 pm
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By Bill Mayeroff, bmayeroff@qconline.com

It was a warm afternoon when I first discovered Chester's special talent.

I was taking my 2-year-old terrier mix on a walk around our Rock Island neighborhood when he stopped by a bush and stuck his nose under it.

He sniffed a few times and then a few more before reaching a paw into the bush. A few more sniffs and a lunge. Turns out Chester had found some new toys -- several small garter snakes, each about 18 inches long, in the bushes.

It was not the only time he's found garter snakes. Since the weather began warming, Chester, who moved from the shelter to my apartment in September, has found several garter snake nests around the Broadway neighborhood.

As the fictional Indiana Jones said in one of his movies, "Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?"

The Quad-Cities area it turns out, is fairly hospitable to snakes, fortunately nonpoisonous ones.

Mandy Turnbull, head keeper at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, said this area has "good soil" and "a lot of rodents to eat. They eat pretty much anything small that's outside of water."

Ms. Turnbull said there are subspecies of garter snakes all over the United States.

Although local winters can be harsh, garter snakes hibernate, burrowing into the ground beneath the frost line, she said.

Once a garter snake finds a hibernation spot, they go to the same spot year after year, Ms. Turnbull said, adding that the hibernation spots may have just a few snakes or several hundred.

Garter snakes also like the moist habitat of this area, said Tim Muir, a biology professor at Augustana College in Rock Island. "There's also a lot of cover."

Sometimes, garter snakes get into places where they might not be welcome, he said. "People will find them in their houses in the winter."

Mr. Muir said this area is home to two species of garter snakes -- the plains garter snake and the eastern garter snake.

According to the Prairie Research Institute on the University of Illinois' website at www.inhs.illinois.edu, eastern garter snakes (thamnophis sirtalis) grow to nearly 40 inches, and are black with three yellow stripes. Plains garter snakes (thamnophis radix) look very similar, though the stripes are more orange.

Female eastern garter snakes, according to the institute, give birth to 15 to 80 young between July and October, while female plains garter snakes mate in April or May and give birth to five to 30 young from August to October.

Mr. Muir said there are populations of both eastern and plains garter snakes on the Augustana campus. He said that even though the past winter was much warmer than normal, it's unlikely many emerged from hibernation early.

During hibernation, garter snakes shut down their digestive process, and coming out of hibernation early and then getting cold again would take more energy than they could spare, he said.

The plains garter snake is more likely to emerge early if the temperature gets warm, but they have an internal mechanism to make sure it's actually time to end their hibernation, Mr. Muir said.

"They use day length," he said. "But that's modulated by temperature."

Despite the oddly warm winter, Mr. Muir doesn't think garter snakes around here are mating earlier than normal.

He said that while garter snakes pose no real danger to humans, when spooked, they defecate and release a noxious-smelling material. Since they are not constrictors and don't have powerful jaws, Mr. Muir said scent is their only defense.

"They just are kind of harmless."


Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, Sept 2, the 245th day of 2014. There are 120 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: It is estimated that 300,000 people attended the recent Democratic convention in Chicago when Gen. George B. McClellan of New Jersey was nominated as a candidate for president of the United States.
1889 — 125 years ago: Alderman Frank Ill, Winslow Howard and Captain J.M. Montgomery returned from Milwaukee, where they attended the national Grand Army of the Republic encampment.
1914 — 100 years ago: Three members of the Rock Island YMCA accepted positions as physical directors of other associations. Albert Cook went to Kewanee, C.D. Curtis to Canton and Willis Woods to Leavenworth, Kan.
1939 — 75 years ago: Former President Herbert Hoover appealed for national support of President F.D. Roosevelt and Congress in every effort to keep the United States out of war.
1964 — 50 years ago: The Rock Island Junior chamber pf Commerce has received answers to about 65 % of the 600 questionnaires mailed out recently in a "Community Attitude Survey" to analyze sentiments of citizens towards their city's various recreational, educational, and civic service programs.
1989 — 25 years ago: The two thunderstorms passing through the Quad Cities last night and early today left some area residents reaching for their flashlights.

(More History)