Snakes: Partners in Nature

It has been my good fortune over the past 54 years to be with thousands of people, from toddlers to adults, hiking, exploring, studying and learning in the great outdoors. Even though I’ve often been the leader of the groups, much discussion and “give and take” have taken place and been welcome and valuable additions to the outings – excellent learning experiences for all including me.

The unexpected and sudden discoveries have invariably been the ones the hikers and I most vividly recall, some for many years after they occurred. Unquestionably the group of animals which ranks at the very top of all those encountered are snakes. Had I informed my group before starting out on our hike that snakes would be among the creatures we’d be seeing and learning about, several may have chosen to not come along.

A Western Fox Snake in the woods at Rock Island.

Obviously the fear many people have of snakes is a learned behavior, whether it came from hearing folk tales which heightened their imagination, watching a horror movie involving snakes, or perhaps a TV special featuring snake hunters in some remote jungle. At the other end of the scale I think of a junior high biology teacher I worked with in Madison many years ago who was a very skilled snake specialist and usually had several species in his school laboratory. He had the great talent of teaching his students about snakes, how to safely handle them, properly feed and care for them, and, in the process, to not be fearful of snakes and especially to respect them.

The very first snake I learned to handle and not fear as a third grader was a Smooth Green Snake, referred to as being smooth because each of its scales does not have a slightly raised keel as do most of the other snakes in our area. The snakes I brought into my junior high classrooms through the years were usually the Brown (also called DeKay’s) and the Red-bellied. Both are quite small, extremely docile and easy to handle as long as they are gently treated. Even though many of the students enjoyed this learning experience, I never forced them to do so or ridiculed them for not participating.

The two most abundant snakes, not only in Door County but in the entire state, are the Western Fox and the Common Garter. Many people erroneously call the Western Fox the Pine Snake. Pine Snakes are a southern species and do not exist anywhere close to our state. The Common Garter is often called the grass snake, simply due to its color and perhaps to its fondness of grassy areas. A few of the Common Garter snakes I’ve caught in order to show to my hiking groups happened to resent being handled and managed to rub their anal area onto my hands. Believe me, this very foul-smelling fluid, once on your hands, remains for some time despite a few washings.

My guess is that the Western Fox Snake is the most naturally feared and commonly and needlessly killed of all our county snakes. An adult’s coppery-tan head leads some to believe that it’s a genuine venomous Copperhead, another southern snake that does not inhabit Wisconsin. Actually the Fox Snake is an excellent catcher and destroyer of rodents. The fact that the Fox Snakes experience good rodent-finding in old rock fences and foundations leads them to accidentally enter people’s homes or cottages, usually in their basements.

A much smaller snake, but somewhat similar in markings to the Fox, is the Eastern Milk. What a gorgeous creature this is, wearing an easily seen distinguishing mark on the top of its head, a white “Y.”  The cryptic coloration of both of these reptiles provides them with excellent camouflage.

One of the most secretive, as well as beautiful and intriguing, of all Door County snakes is the Northern Ringneck, occasionally found beneath large, flat, loosely wedged rocks in moist deciduous woods – common ecosystems in our county.

A Milk Snake showing the white letter “Y” on its head.

All snakes have a series of small, backward-pointing, very needle-sharp teeth on both jaws that help them capture their prey. Even a very large common Garter Snake, which I accidentally mishandled, caught onto the skin between my thumb and forefinger, held on for dear life and left several bleeding points before I was able to pry its jaws apart. Should any snake that bites you, therefore penetrating your skin, have tiny bits of fermenting flesh lodged between its teeth from a previous kill, this material may enter your blood stream and result in a serious infection. The good news is that there are absolutely no venomous snakes in Door County and throughout much of our state, the exception being the extreme southwestern area.

Northern Water Snakes, usually quite dark in color, are excellent swimmers below the water as well as on the surface. They inhabit the edges of shallow lakes or river marshes where the vegetation is quite rank. Like most snakes, they like to bask in the sun on a flat rock or fallen tree. Their food in order of preference consists of small fish, frogs and toads, insects and small mammals. Most of the fish victims are either sickly or slow moving fish such as suckers or catfish. It is thought that the Northern Water Snakes are valuable because they help to keep the numbers of fish in balance with their environment.

Strictly out of curiosity I have made half-hearted passes at Northern Water Snakes resulting in them immediately flattening their body and head, coiling and assuming a defensive position, as though to say, “I dare you to come an inch closer!” To do so would bring about one quick lunge after another, the snake’s white-colored mouth wide open and ready for biting, and also leading a good many people to think they are being confronted by a dangerous and venomous “water moccasin” or Cottonmouth Snake. In checking the distribution maps of the Cottonmouth, they do not range north of southern Illinois – thank goodness!

Make a sincere effort to learn more about Door County’s eight species of snakes, the Northern Ringneck, Smooth Green, Western Fox, Eastern Milk, Common Garter, DeKay’s or Brown, Northern Redbelly, and the Northern Water Snake.

The Northern Ringneck Snake with a pale orange belly.

We rejoice that there are no venomous snakes living naturally in the entire northeastern section of the state and that snakes do such a wonderful job maintaining a balance of nature within their own kingdom, something that man has never learned to do!