Garter snakes in your garden

When I was growing up near Buffalo, New York, I had a friend who loved snakes, and we would spend time looking for them in my yard. When we found one, we would carefully pick it up, admire it and then let it go on its way. I loved the way their skin felt—so smooth and cool. And while they would flick their tongues at us, I can’t remember ever being bitten.

Fast forward to when we first moved to Vermont with our young boys. One of our favorite outings was to catch and release garter snakes that were sunning themselves next to the entrance of the Flying Pig Bookstore when it was on Ferry Road. We would be summoned by Josie or Elizabeth to come quickly with our bucket!

I hadn’t thought about snakes for a long time once the calls from the Flying Pig ceased, but last summer I saw a bunch of baby snakes and a few larger ones as well. This year we have a good size garter snake that seems to be hanging around our yard under a tree where I have an old pallet and some rocks that I’ve meant to move. Now I’m wondering if I should leave them, so I don’t disturb its home!

I realized that, despite being happy and excited whenever I see a garter snake, I don’t know much about them. I imagine many of you are in the same boat.

Chances are if you see a snake in your yard or out in nature in Vermont, it’s a garter snake. To make an identification, look for its yellowish stripes: one down the center of its back and one on each side. The background color for these stripes is a combination of green, black or brown. Its head is often solid brown or green with a yellow lower jaw. Adults are between two and three feet long and about one inch in diameter.

There are other snakes in Vermont, but only one is dangerous—and that is the timber rattlesnake. According to a Middlebury website about snakes, none have ever been seen in Charlotte. If you happen to see one, stay away and please report all sightings to Vermont Fish & Wildlife. This species is endangered, in part because until 1971 they were bountied, and Vermont has a plan to help their population recover. Take a minute to watch the video called Rattlesnake Research in Vermont for a closer look.

Let’s get back to garter snakes and ask: What do they eat? They are carnivorous, like all snakes, and usually eat their prey live. A good meal for a garter snake might be an earthworm or a slug. If they are lucky, they might catch a frog, toad or even a rodent. Of course, whatever they’re eating is swallowed whole, head first, and then digested in their stomachs. All snakes also need water, and so chances are good they will live close to a water source.

Where do they live? Because, like all reptiles, snakes cannot regulate their body temperature, they have to move from warm sunny spots to cool underground burrows. But they can be pretty flexible, living in fields, woodlands, marshes and, of course, in gardens!

In places with cold winters, like Vermont, snakes hibernate together in dens or other protected spaces. I have no idea how they find these communal hibernating places, but apparently they will travel quite far to stay cozy over the winter with their fellow snake friends. 

Where do baby garter snakes come from? When spring comes and the snakes are leaving their hibernation places, female snakes will give off pheromones to attract males, and they mate with several males before becoming pregnant. In fact, one could see a mating ball, which is many male snakes trying to mate with one female. Once the female snake is pregnant, the eggs gestate in her lower abdomen. She gives birth to live young in litters averaging about 25 baby snakes! Once they are born, they are on their own. Snakes do not do any parenting.

If your reaction to garter snakes is more along the lines of “Aack, stay away from me!” please remember that they are far more afraid of us that we might be of them. Chances are, after being spotted, they will slither off to find a more peaceful place to rest. 

Hopefully, now when you see a garter snake in your garden you’ll be able to appreciate them a little more. And my contact information can be found on the town website should you need assistance with garter snake relocation services!

The Conservation Commission meets at 7:00 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of the month at Town Hall.