April 09, 2011

Snake Lore - 2011 Spring Edition





This morning I was in my backyard when I heard something rustling in the leaves. There are a lot of squirrels in the park next door, so I didn't think much of it. But the noise continued at a slow steady pace, unlike the frenetic scrambling squirrels make.

I went over to investigate, and saw a roiling mass of garter snakes! There were probably six or seven of them in a big tangle, slowly moving their way down a little incline. I got Tony from inside and we watched them for a while. Eventually they stopped churning around and watched us right back.

It seems likely that they were mating. According to Wikipedia, multiple males will mate with females as they emerge from their hibernation, forming big churning masses of snakes. Interestingly, some male snakes emit female pheromones to entice other male snakes to rub over them. Herpetologists say this helps warm up these cold-blooded creatures. Hmm. Maybe we witnessed a bisexual snake orgy in our own backyard?

These were the first garter snakes I saw this year, and they were lucky we aren't living in the 19th century. If we were, I might have been compelled to kill them, as instructed by this little rhyme:

Kill the first snake, And break the first brake, And you will conquer all you undertake.

The word brake here refers to a fern, not part of a car. Happily, these days I think people are more respectful towards both snakes and plants. Love your snakes, don't kill them!

I do wonder how seriously 19th century folks actually took these beliefs about snakes. For example, did anyone really believe in hoop snakes? Supposedly this species of snake grabbed its tail in its mouth, formed a circle, and then rolled rapidly like a hoop after its prey. Once it caught its victim it would stab it with its hard, spike-like tail. The unlikely person or animal would either shrivel up and die, or shatter into pieces. I guess the snake ate the little pieces of flesh? It doesn't seem very efficient, but evolution works in weird ways.

I have some more snake lore here, here, and here. I got today's information and picture from Clifton Johnson's What They Say In New England (1896).

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