The first snake I encountered in my Glen Echo garden took place in my early days of composting. Unfortunately, my first composter allowed any interested creature to hop in and feast on the compost treats that had not yet decomposed. One day as I began turning the compost, a gorgeous snake slithered away in the midst of digesting one of the rats that had discovered the available compost. As much as I enjoyed my encounter with the snake, I knew I needed to stop feeding the rats. So, I changed over to a compost tumbler which is an enclosed, raised system that is not accessible to rats. Now, most of the snakes I see are while walking along the canal or the river but I am always especially pleased to spy one in my garden.
Snakes are unfairly maligned. They are perceived by many people as something to be feared and killed. However, they are rarely aggressive towards humans. The large majority of snakes in this area are not only harmless, but they play an important role in ecosystems because they eat rats, mice, other rodents, and insects. Snakes are also an important food source for birds and larger animals such as the red-shouldered hawk that relies on snakes to feed their young. There are two species of venomous snakes in Maryland and both of these are shy and will stay away from humans if possible. Problems occur when people try to catch or handle one. It’s best to leave them alone. In fact, it is illegal to kill any snake in Maryland.
The snakes most often encountered are the eastern garter snake, black rat snake, and northern water snake (if there is a body of water nearby). We might also see the brown snake, worm snake, ring-necked snake, eastern king snake, and hog-nosed snake. Take a look at these beautiful snakes on this web site:
In the fall, snakes begin searching for a place to hibernate. Their favorite places to spend the winter are cool, damp, and dark. They love stone walls, rock crevices, piles of firewood, animal burrows, wild areas, or cluttered storage sheds. Often people create a hibernaculum which is a kind of underground area created with rocks, logs, and leaf litter that snakes can use during winter and will protect them from the cold. Watch some of the great YouTube videos that explain how to build a simple hibernaculum at home.
In a 1991 article written by Zoologist Bela Demeter in Audubon Naturalist News, he describes how the construction of the C&O Canal created one of the longest man-made snake dens in the world. The miles of rocks, stone, roots, crevices, and brick have endless spaces where snakes and other reptiles can find refuge and enjoy the southern exposure that keeps the spaces warm throughout the winter. As you take walks keep an eye out for these treasured snakes. Consider it a real treat if you happen to see one.
Photo by Kerry Wixsted of common Garter snake