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In the Home of the Snake

When your job involves exploring a trail through the woods with a group of elementary school students, a day when you catch a snake is a good day. As a park Interpreter, sharing the right story or insight about trees or squirrels brings a gleam to the eyes or a giggle to the lips of many a kid. But find a snake sunning itself at the edge of the trail, and the gasps and shrieks and shouts come quite on their own. So when my own daughter half-squealed, half-exclaimed, “Is that a live snake?!” while playing in the yard, I knew it would be a good day.

We discovered this beautiful little garter snake in late March, probably soon after it emerged from hibernation. Garter snakes handle near-freezing temperatures better than most other Michigan snakes, and they’re typically the first we discover in the spring. To survive the winter, our cold-blooded snakes must find spots where they can get below the frost line, whether it’s under a rock or log, down a hole, or even inside a crayfish burrow. For garter snakes, males slither out first from these hibernation sites, called hibernacula, then hang around, waiting for females to emerge for some snake romance. We’ve learned that snakes and other reptiles know their home ranges, and that they rely on memory to find proper hibernacula in the fall. Move a reptile from its home range, and that snake or turtle or lizard may not survive the coming winter, especially in colder climates with fewer good spots to get below the frost line.

My daughter wanted to release this snake in the local woods, but after learning that reptiles need their homes to survive, she changed her mind and let it go in a sheltered spot not far from where we found it in the grass. We’ve been rewarded by finding the same snake again, two weeks later. “You’re right!” she exclaimed. “Our yard really is his home!” And as we’ve been sheltering at home, we’ve woken each day to the spring songs of birds that seem a little bit louder as the traffic sounds have been quieter. We’ve noticed the flying insects filling our yard on the sunny days and the squirrels digging nuts from the soft soil by our messy flower bed. And we keep an eye open for our resident garter snake. A day finding a snake is a good day. A day realizing that our yard isn’t just ours — that it belongs to the garter snake on the lawn, the song sparrow in the juniper bush, and the fox squirrel in the maple out back — is even better.

Written by Justin Smith, Community Outreach Interpreter (Southern District)

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