Snakes of Door County

One of my greatest pleasures in life is leading people to study nature in the great outdoors. Trees and shrubs, wildflowers, rocks and fossils, birds, dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies and others are eagerly searched for, studied and admired. However, one creature we’ve never gone looking for has been snakes, perhaps the primary reason I know so little about them. I’m not afraid of them and respect them to the fullest, but most often they are simply few and far between and usually difficult to find.

This Garter Snake is a female, indicated by her long thin tail. Males have shorter, more blunt tails.

I’ve had terrariums in most schools where I’ve taught, and often we had a very docile Northern Red-bellied Snake or a Dekay’s Brown Snake in them. Never once did I force a student to handle one of the snakes, but invariably there were those students who took great pride in handling and learning to respect these docile reptiles.

The wonderful George Knudson, former outstanding state naturalist with the DNR, presented a few snake programs, very well attended, for us at the Ridges years ago. What always stole the show was the Timber Rattlesnake he brought with him. No, he did not allow anyone, other than himself, to handle the deadly venomous creature. What he did allow the people (mostly eager youngsters) to handle was the large, non-venomous, heavy-bodied Bull Snake, native to Wisconsin’s western counties. That reptile must have been at least six feet long.

Invariably the first snake we see each year at our place is the Common Garter Snake. I’ve carefully handled plenty of small specimens to show people through the years. It wasn’t until I caught perhaps the largest female I’ve ever seen, at least 30 inches long, that apparently through my careless handling left the absolute smelliest substance on my hands I’ve ever encountered. I could barely wash the stuff off! The highly odiferous musky substance can be emitted by both male and female from a special gland at the base of the tail and must be considered as a defense mechanism.

An adult female Garter Snake tends to be several inches longer than a male. The tail of an adult male Garter Snake is thicker than the female’s and has a very blunt tip. The end of a female’s tail is quite long and thin.

Fine pencil-like marks help identify the Brown Snake, next to a Millipede.

My friend, Nick Anderson and I were out to the Point a few days ago and it was Nick who spotted a very large Western Fox Snake as it slithered off the road and into the brush. Had I called this snake a Pine Snake, many of you would have easily visualized this common reptile of northeastern Wisconsin. To set the record straight, there are no Pine Snakes in our state. True Pine Snakes, related to Bull Snakes, are confined to the southeastern states – the Carolinas, Georgia, and south into Florida and Louisiana.

The Western Fox Snake belongs to a group of reptiles known as Rat Snakes indicating that it does eat rodents. Actually, rats and mice make up a large part of its diet. If there ever was a wild animal truly beneficial to famers and orchard owners, this is one.

Small mammals, bird eggs, salamanders and even earthworms are also included in this inoffensive creature’s diet. The prey is swallowed whole. Tiny needle-sharp, thorn-like teeth curve backward, two rows on the upper jaw and one row on the lower, preventing the victims from sliding back out of the mouth.

Even though the Fox Snake is nonpoisonous, as are all other snakes in our part of the state, it will bite in self-defense. It’s very possible that one of these snakes may have tiny bits of fermenting animal particles clinging to the inside of its mouth. If you get bitten by one of these snakes there is a good chance that minute particles of this rotting material will enter your blood stream and perhaps bring about a very bad case of blood poisoning. My soundest advice is to not handle these and other snakes. Let them remain where you encountered them.

The delicate and small size of the Ring-necked Snake is shown here.

Adult Fox Snakes range from 36 to 54 inches in length, rarely are they longer than 60 inches. Anyone who has reported seeing one of these common reptiles that is six feet or longer has “stretched” it by at least a foot, somewhat like the big fish that got away!

Nicknames of the Western Fox Snake include Pine Snake, Copperhead, Timber Snake and Spotted Snake. It is frequently referred to as the Hardwood Rattler in Ontario. They are ready for a fight when cornered and will vibrate their tails rapidly upon becoming alarmed. Hundreds of people are fooled into being “positive” they saw and heard a rattlesnake.

The usual rusty-tan colored heads of most adults bring about the fear of having a poisonous Copperhead on people’s property. According to any qualified state herpetologist, there aren’t now, and most likely there never have been, Copperhead Snakes in Wisconsin.

Notice the rusty-tan head of this large Western Fox Snake, which often startles its prey.

One Fox Snake experience clearly stands out in my mind. Some years ago an obviously frightened lady called to ask if there were any Copperheads in Door County. When I said no, she shot back with, “Oh yea? I’ve got one here!” So I said, “Bring it over and I’ll take a look at it.” Before I could finish talking, she hung up. Naturally I got to wondering how she was going to catch the snake.

Moments later she pulled into the driveway in her pickup truck. Out she came, trembling, holding a huge dead Fox Snake on the end of a broom handle. Her answer was “yes” when I asked her if they had a lot of mice on their property. I was terribly sorry to have to tell her she had needlessly destroyed the best “mouser” she could ever have had around her farm buildings.

The dark spots and blotches of this “people’s friend” vary from brown to black. Its so-called ground color, or under color, is yellowish to light tan. The belly is also a dull yellow, checkered with black. Bear in mind that the color of your Fox Snake may be different from that in your snake reference. Variation in nature is quite normal. Their colored patterns are not as though they were run off on a printing press.

Learn to know and respect the snakes in Door County. Included are Common Garter, W. Fox, N. Ring-necked, N. Red-bellied, E. Milk, N. Water, Smooth Green (Grass Snake) and DeKay’s Brown Snakes. They will stay out of your way and never attack you or your children, and the W. Fox Snakes will keep your premises quite free of rodents for no cost. Even though they may frighten you occasionally, look “down to them” for their importance on Earth. Become partners in nature!