Every once in a while, when we’re out in our summery yard enjoying birds and flowers, we encounter a snake. We’ve been around snakes for decades and know there are no venomous species in our area but we’re still startled when one slithers away.
Managing a yard to attract a diversity of wildlife sometimes encourages snakes to move in along with birds and butterflies. Usually the snakes that visit yards are non-venomous species merely looking for a place to live and something for dinner. Most common are garter snakes that mostly eat insects. We’ve written about garter snakes on Winding Pathways before. Sometimes we spot tiny brown snakes no bigger than a nightcrawler. They also eat worms and bugs. Once in a while we see a beautifully colored and patterned fox snake. They probably seek tasty white footed mice or maybe a chipmunk. And lots of folks combat the undermining work of chipmunks.
Some backyard snakes can be downright startling. A few years ago, we spotted a husky snake that held its ground. It hissed loudly and was not willing to flee. Although looked threatening, we knew it was just an act. It was a hog nosed snake that sometimes flattens its head like a cobra and hisses when a human approach. It’s a trick that works. Most people quickly back off from this imposing act. This snake loves eating toads and frogs but won’t bite people.
There’s an irony about snakes. Many homeowners simply hate chipmunks. Yet they’ll kill any snake they find. Snakes are one of the best of all chipmunk predators and having a few around keeps the population of the small mammals in check.
Snakes range throughout the continental United States. Most species are non-venomous and even in places where venomous snakes live they generally avoid suburban and urban neighborhoods. It’s good to be cautious but be curious instead of terrified. When a snake is spotted give it plenty of space and try to identify it.
Binoculars that focus closely is a help in observation. And you can keep your distance. Concentrate on the shape of the head and tail, the color(s) and scale patterns and type of habitat. Google a guide to snakes of (name your state) for more information. The snake is likely harmless and fascinating. If it is not, then you might have to have it destroyed.
This is the case in some parts of the country. We have friends who live in the breaks of central Idaho where rattlers periodically come in. So, they are very aware as they move around the garden and yard.
We consider the snakes we occasionally find in our Winding Pathways yard as interesting and welcome as the goldfinches and cardinals that visit our feeders. We’ve even placed a few hollow logs at the edge of the yard so they have a a safe place to hide. They also enjoy a rock wall between our house and a patch of trees.
If we’re not sure what species of snake we’ve discovered we often go to the Internet. Many state universities have Websites that help people identify the snake species that live there. Iowa has a great site. So, does Florida, and an interesting one comes from Nebraska. Many field guide books are also on the market that feature color photos and information about snake species.
Wildlife Specialist Rebecca Christoffel of Iowa State University Extension reminds us that “…snakes eat worms, slugs, bugs and other small animals such as frogs or fish. Snakes don’t do any damage to buildings because they don’t dig their own holes, instead using holes other animals have made.” She has a few simple tips to remove a snake from areas of the yard where homeowners do not want them. If a snake is found in an undesirable place, like a garage or shed, Christoffel said a broom and a trash barrel can easily be used to remove it. Lay the trash barrel on its side, and with a broom (soft plastic bristles or straw), “sweep” the snake into the garbage barrel, gently forcing it down to the bottom of the barrel. The barrel, and snake, can then be taken to another area of the property and the snake released out of harm’s way.” (From ISU website)
Christoffel added, “An alternative solution is to learn to accept having the snakes around and appreciating the valuable ecosystem services they provide,” Christoffel added. “Snakes are excellent rodent and insect control.”
Find a snake in the yard? You may be startled. Remember, be cautious and curious. It’s likely a desirable and beautiful species that helps keep a balance of wildlife. After all, snakes, too, have a place in the eco-system.
Watching backyard wildlife yields amazing sights and education. We recently noticed two things at Winding Pathways that reminded us about how many animals are downright smart.
Both involved a manufactured trap that supposedly catches House Sparrows. We have more of this pesky bird than we’d like so we set the trap under a feeder and baited it with cracked corn. A few minutes later an intrepid chipmunk entered the trap’s funnel-like door, feasted on seeds, and couldn’t find his way out. We gently released him and set the trap back on the corn.
A few minutes later we were amazed to see the chipmunk back and watch it tunnel under the trap to reach the bait! He’d learned that entering the trap brought trouble and figured out how to safely reach lunch.
Our sparrows are even smarter than the chipmunk. Not a single one entered the trap. Instead they feasted on corn and millet on the ground around the feeder. After a few hours they had eaten all the safe seed but they still wouldn’t enter the trap.
We now have new respect for the intelligence of both chipmunks and House Sparrows.
The chipmunk figured out how to tunnel under the live trap to reach the corn.
Having excavated, the chipmunk now enters the tunnel to get the corn.
In and Under!
With pouches full, the chipmunk emerges.
The chipmunk figured how to tunnel under the live trap, gather up the corn and emerged with pouches full.
Chipmunks are one of the most common backyard wild animals. These small striped rodents enjoy living in shady yards that have some form of structure for them to hide in or around. Sometimes people confuse them with thirteen lined ground squirrels, which are about the same size but prefer to live in large lawns in the open sun.
Several species of chipmunks live in the United States. Most are in the West and the most commonly encountered species is the Eastern Chipmunk that frequent yards.
Chipmunks love retaining walls and woodpiles, especially those that have many nooks and crannies. They are efficient diggers and sometimes make so many tunnels that a wall slumps or collapses and a woodpile teeters over.
The small mammals eat seeds, fruit, and an occasional insect. They are efficient tree climbers and harvest fruits like cherries on the uppermost slender branches. Chipmunk heaven is a shady yard with a retention wall and bird feeder to provide a daily seed banquet.
Some people resent chipmunks because of their incessant tunneling. Box trapping and moving the animals rarely reduces the population of a species that has many babies. Keeping bird seed off the ground and contained in feeders may reduce a chipmunk population somewhat. Hawks and snakes enjoy dining on these small mammals. Encouraging predators to share the yard will help keep chipmunk numbers in check.
We like the chipmunks that live in our backyard at Winding Pathways. They’re beautiful animals that make us smile when we spot one with cheek pouches crammed with seeds. They’ve undermined our low rock wall in a few places, but we just repair it and consider the damage a small price to pay for the wonderful entertainment chipmunks provide on summer days.
The charming but pesky chipmunk is an amazing forager and storer of food.
Wildlife sometime create yard mischief. Raccoons, possums, and skunks tip over trash cans in the middle of the night. Chipmunks tunnel under walls, moles heap mounds of dirt. And woodchucks and cottontails raid the garden.
Damage, or perceived damage, often infuriates homeowners. Woodchucks have the uncanny ability to harvest lettuce the day before it is to be picked for an evening salad, and raccoons raid the sweet corn patch the moment ears are ripe. Moles hump up hills of dirt that lawnmowers hit, and skunks mine into the sod for grubs. What’s a homeowner to do?
WHY WILDLIFE CAUSE PROBLEMS
There’s no mystery to it. Wild animals are attracted to yards because they are comfortable places to live or find food. All living creatures need food, shelter and water to live. Yards frequently offer these basic needs all in proximity. Create a beautiful diverse yard and wildlife will enjoy it as much as people. In most cases people love seeing most species of wildlife in their yards, but often agree that they are best enjoyed in moderation.
THREE STEPS TO CONTROL GARDEN WILDLIFE DAMAGE
There are three ways to effectively overcome, or at least minimize, wildlife damage.
Homeowners differ in their strategy on how they weigh the benefits versus problems of wildlife in the yard.
Strategy One: Tolerate damage and enjoy wildlife.
It’s a state of mind that may require attitude adjustment. How important is a perfect lawn or head of cabbage, versus watching a cottontail mom peacefully nurse her babies on the edge of the law? How valuable is the beauty and inspiration gained from seeing chipmunks pack their cheeks with seeds and scamper across the yard versus the tunnels they make in retaining walls? For many people having beautiful and interesting wildlife out the window far outweighs damage they may cause.
We had a friend who grew a tiny garden with a few lettuce plants, a short row of string beans, and one hill of summer squash. When a cottontail devoured them she was incensed and declared war on bunnies. She bought traps but never managed to catch them. She built a fence but the lettuce thieves found their way under it. Her stress level rose as plants disappeared.
We suggested she might rely on simple arithmetic to solve her problem.
“Instead of spending about a hundred bucks on fencing and traps, wouldn’t it be simpler and cheaper to just buy lettuce, squash, and beans at the farmer’s market”, we asked her. She agreed. It took some mental adjustment, but now she buys locally grown vegetables and enjoys watching the cottontails that she once hated.
SOMETIMES IT’S BEST TO JUST IGNORE MINOR DAMAGE AND ENJOY WILDLIFE.
Strategy two. Preventing damage in the first place.
The saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” holds true for wildlife damage. In most cases homeowners can both enjoy wildlife and prevent or greatly reduce damage critters might do. Some simple ways to anticipate and reduce conflict include:
Fencing: Craft fences sturdy enough to keep rabbits and woodchucks out of the garden. Cottontails, for example can jump a long ways horizontally but not high vertically. An inexpensive 18 “ tall temporary fence of chicken wire will keep them out of the garden. Woodchucks are more challenging, as they are expert diggers and climbers. A garden fence needs to extend below the ground to keep them out and needs to be at least three or four feet tall. Watch for more fencing specifics in future editions of Winding Pathways website.
Securing: Store trash cans inside the garage with the door closed to keep raccoons from tipping it over. Better yet, compost food scraps and don’t put anything in the can that will interest wildlife. Composting turns waste into a wonderful resource that improves the soil. Don’t let the trash man cart it away. Some people who prefer not to add meat scraps to the compost bin, feed them to a small flock of chickens or simply put them on the edge of the yard in the evening for the raccoons to devour. No more tipping over the trash can.
PREVENTION IS A KEY
Strategy three: Killing the offending animal.
Often people resort first to killing an animal. However killing a few woodchucks, raccoons, moles, or chipmunks will not solve damage problems. These animals are in the yard because they find perfect conditions there to live. Remove a few and others will move in. Keep killing and you’ve created a wildlife death trap.
Sometimes it is necessary to kill an animal. Upcoming issues of Winding Pathways will feature tips on how to eliminate problem animals.