The Harmless and Helpful snakes of the Snoqualmie Valley

One of my strongest memories of my Father is watching him walk up to the front door after work. He had his briefcase in hand, and his eyes glued to the juniper ground cover that bordered our flower beds. He had seen a snake in that ground cover years before and Dad was terrified of snakes.

I never quite understood his terror when I was a child. My friends and I played with snakes. We braved their teeth and the awful musky smell they gave off when threatened to try and keep them as pets in shoeboxes. Thinking we were making it homey for them, we’d give them grass, insects and water with a couple of air holes to keep them alive.

Alas, some died and some were discovered by our Mothers who screeched at us to “put that thing back where you found it!” I think Dad knew logically that little snake wouldn’t hurt him. He just couldn’t stand the sight of them slithering along that garden path.

In all fairness to him, historically snakes don’t have a very good reputation. Synonymous with evil, snakes were often portrayed as the villain in fictional stories. From the serpent in Eden, to the Greek myth Medusa, all the way up to Harry Potter, snakes were made out to be something to be feared.

However, only 20% of the world’s snakes are venomous and none of Western Washington’s snakes will hurt you. In fact, they can be very helpful.  

Snakes can be found on every continent except Antarctica and on most small land masses. Large Islands such as Ireland, Iceland, New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands and Greenland are the exceptions. There are 3600 species of snakes in the world and 375 of those are venomous. You can find them as high as 16,000 feet, as large as 22.8 ft long and as small as 4 inches.

We have 4 types of snakes in Western Washington:

  • The Common Garter Snake, which has three subspecies: The Red Spotted, the Puget Sound and the Valley Garter Snake.
  •  The Northwestern Garter Snake
  • The Western Terrestrial Garter Snake
  • The Northern Rubber Boa.

Washington is home to about 12 species altogether, while other states have many more. California, for example, has 33 species. Why do we have so few? Our cold rainy climate is to blame, because it makes it hard for reptiles to reproduce. You can’t really depend on color to identify these reptiles, as that can vary by region. Field marks to identify range from head size to scale pattern. Length is also variable from 18 to almost 55 inches So, for the sake of simplicity they’re all just Garter Snakes.

Visible from mid-winter to early fall, these snakes need a temperature of about 55 degrees to be active. When not active they go into a state called brumation, the reptile equivalent of hibernation, and may brumate alone or occupy large communal sites called hibernacula. They may travel a distance to these sites which typically are rock piles, rodent burrows or wood piles.

Garter Snakes after dark

Mating season is shortly after they emerge from brumation. Like many other animal’s, snakes have complex pheromonal communications.

Pheromones are chemicals secreted by an animal, especially an insect, that influences the behavior or physiology of others of the same species, as by attracting members of the opposite sex or marking the route to a food source.” -Free Dictionary

Males and females have very different skin pheromones and can be distinguished from each other quite easily. However, male garter snakes can sometimes produce both sexes pheromones. They use this ability to try and trick other male garter snakes into trying to mate with them. Kleptothermy, known to us human females as “cuddling”, causes a transfer of heat and gives those male snakes an advantage. These males get more action when it comes time for the mating ball. See! We told you cuddling had a purpose!

Oh, that mating ball. That is the reason I’m writing this article.  Several posts on the Snoqualmie Ridge Facebook group reported seeing them this past spring. Males come out of their dens first and as soon as the females come out, they are surrounded. Those pheromones can attract mobs of males, lead to fierce male/male rivalries and a ball of snakes upwards of 25 males to one female. If you dare, you can see one here. Poor Dad wouldn’t have been able to handle that spectacle.

Garter snakes are ovoviviparous, which mean they have live births, in mid to late summer. Their litters can be anywhere from 3 to 85 young depending on population and size of the female. Young are independent upon being born.

Garters do produce a mild venom that isn’t strong enough to harm humans. In addition, they have no fangs so no good way of delivering that mild venom. They do have small teeth and can bite (I found that out as a child) as well as produce that stink, I talked about earlier. It’s a mix of feces, urine and musk that works on predators as well as little curious girls. Predators include birds of prey, crows, herons, cranes, raccoons and opossum. Garter snakes will eat almost anything they can wherever they are, such as frogs, snails, slugs, mice, fish, small birds and other snakes. This habit makes them highly beneficial to gardeners and farmers

We also have the Northern Rubber Boa in Washington State. Nonvenomous, it is smaller than the garter snake measuring anywhere from 14 to 33 inches long. They get their name from their loose, wrinkled skin that has smooth and shiny scales making them appear rubber like. They are typically tan to dark brown but sometimes green, yellow, or orange. They have heads that are the same size as their bodies and tails that closely resemble their heads. They look quite different from the Garter snake and are easily distinguishable.

Unlike other snakes Rubber boas are intolerant of high temperatures and don’t live where many other snakes do. They are, however, found in many diverse habitats from grasslands to high alpine settings well over 10,000 feet. I don’t recall ever seeing one and that might be explained by their habit of staying mostly undercover, being nocturnal and crepuscular.

Rubber Boa Photo Credit WDFW Website

Known as incredibly docile, they rarely strike but do use the nasty smell technique when they feel threatened. In fact, the Rubber boa is so calm it is frequently used to help people get over their fear of snakes. They too give birth to live young but only give birth to up to 9 young and some females only reproduce every 4 years.

The Rubber Boa preys on young mammals such as shrews’, mice and voles and are preyed upon by any larger sized predator in their habitat. Lacking an effective defense technique, their best defense is to stay hidden and secretive.

Garter Snake at Three Forks dog park-Photo credit Michelle Jones

So why do so many of us fear snakes? Some theorize that humans developed a way of identifying snakes and spiders early on as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Those who had this ability survived, reproduced and passed on their genes.

Really, here in Western Washington we rarely see snakes and have no logical reason to fear them. In reality, snakes can be very beneficial to humans. Medical research has advanced through study of snake venom and their most important service is pest control.

So, if you see a snake around here, know that it won’t hurt you and is likely to help you and your household. Don’t call an exterminator, call your local nine year kid. They’ll know how to handle it.

Garter Snake-Photo Credit Janine Harles

Comments

  1. Thank you for this article! My garden’s population of garter snakes has increased every year and I’ve often wandered what they are up to. I have a few wood piles and an extensive garden which attracts all kinds of prey for them so that is the most likely reason for the increase. My kids love to look at them but are not quite brave enough yet to pick one up.

  2. David Battey says

    I remember grandfather Swenson setting me down and telling me why he loved Western Washington: “No poisonous snakes or spiders, no poisonous plants (i.e. no poison ivy or oak), no tornados (His Swenson grandparents were killed by one) and – I can bury my pipes six inches down and they won’t freeze ”
    We who grew up in Western Washington are often quite naive about the dangerous climate our ancestors endured on their trek west to mild W. Washington.

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