Seen Any Snakes Lately? You Will.

May 17, 2018

Chances are, if you haven’t yet seen your first snake of the year, you will soon.

In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about snakes of northern Wisconsin.

This time of year, as the days get warmer, the nights are still cool, and vegetation is still relatively short, snakes are coming out of hibernation, moving about to hunt, and looking for places to lay eggs. Since snakes cannot generate their own body heat, they tend to come out on the gravel, stones, or street pavement in the mornings to warm up and are readily visible to vehicles. Consequently, this time of year, I tend to talk to a lot of folks about snakes.

There are 20 species of snakes in Wisconsin, and only two of them are venomous. Both venomous species are rattlesnakes, and they are limited to the bluff country of western and southwestern Wisconsin, near the Mississippi River. We do not have venomous snakes in the North. I know there are people reading this article right now who disagree with me, who have seen a rattlesnake, or a cobra, and I never tell people what they did or did not see. Snakes are a special animal, though; seeing one raises the heart rate and adrenaline, and some of the behaviors that our native snakes exhibit can lead us to come to a mistaken conclusion.  Let’s look at some examples.

The Eastern Hognose is probably my favorite Wisconsin snake. The far northern edge of this snake’s range touches south Oneida County. It can get three feet long, and it has brown blotches on a brownish gold background. It has some fascinating behavior to protect itself. It can flatten and widen its head similar to a cobra hood, exhibiting black spots that look sort of like big scary eyes. Otherwise, it puts on a death act. It rolls over on its back, tossing and writhing like it is injured. It vomits, and stops moving. Unfortunately, I have seen this behavior on roads in front of vehicles, and it was not effective.

The fox snake, or pine snake, is probably my most frequent troublemaker. It’s most common crime is being 3 to 6 feet long and scary. Its coloration is a bit like the copperheads I saw when living in Kansas; in fact, it is often confused for this poisonous snake. Pine snakes have a tan body with reddish brown blotches and a sort of shiny brown stripe on the head. Copperheads emit an odor, sort of like wet musty burlap. Fox snakes got their name from a musky fox or skunk odor they emit when surprised. But most people notice the rattle. Pine snakes make a warning sound with their tail, shaking it very rapidly in the vegetation or dry leaves. I have heard this sound myself, and it is startling. Unlike rattlesnakes, which grow their own rattle with modified scales inside hollow chambers, the pine snake has a pointed, slender, solid tail. Fox snakes are desirable, generally, because they eat rodents. They are nonpoisonous constrictors, and they eat mice, chipmunks, ground squirrels, rabbits, frogs, and birds. Sadly, these snakes love to lie on our smooth asphalt roads to warm up on cold mornings, and many get run over by vehicles.

Other snakes you might see up here include Brown snake, Northern redbelly snake, Northern ringneck snake, Northern water snake, and smooth green snake (grass snake). None of these snakes are venomous. Here are some pointers to remember. All of Wisconsin’s venomous snakes have rounded blunted tails. If you see a snake with a pointed tail up here, it is not venomous. Another way to check is to look into its eyes. Venomous snakes have a vertically elliptical pupil (think cat’s eye) and a nonvenomous snake has a more rounded pupil, or more horizontal pupil. Nonvenomous snakes may hiss, coil, lunge, and rattle, but these are all desperate attempts to scare you.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.