Most of the time when people see a snake they have one of two reaction. There is usually no middle ground. The most common reaction people have when they see a snake in the wild is to scream or run away, or both. The second and less common reaction to a snake is one of fascination. I grew up in the country, in small town Ontario. Not far ( 3 miles) away from our home was the family cottage where we spent all but the winter months. Our cottage was on a small bay of Lake Ontario. Every spring there was some degree of flooding. Our cottage was commonly surrounded by flood waters. The minor flooding resulted in frogs, snakes, turtles and salamanders being every where. For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by all of these slimy, creepy crawlies. When I was 5 years old, I bought a eastern garter snake from a girl in my kindergarten class for twenty five cents. At the time I thought it was a great deal. Looking back, there were garter snakes every where and I think it wasn’t such a great deal. This began my complete and utter fascination with snakes that has not lessened in the 4 decades since.
I started off with just this one snake( I named him Snakey), I got a habitat for him and my dad built a screen top, that was in no way secure. Snakey escaped often, but I always managed to find him. The first spring at our cottage after getting my garter snake, it seemed like there was en explosion of snakes. I would go hunting for them every morning. I managed to catch so many of them it drove my family nuts. I found an old bath tub that no one wanted any more and put some water in it, I used an old screen door for a top and filled it with as many snakes as I could get my 6 year old hands on. Of course the snakes escaped as fast as I could put them in. That summer, on my birthday my friends brought me gifts. A small snapping turtle, a giant bull frog, three salamanders, and about 5 or 6 more snakes. My father had me march all of them back to the swamp. I did so full of glee and with a spring in my step, returning the animals to their homes meant more time in the swamps, which I loved. That summer I walked around town with “Snakey” my pet garter snake, showing him to everyone who would stop and listen. The most amazing thing to me about snakes back then and still today is how they eat. Simply incredible. I offered to show anyone who wanted to see the process of how a garter snake consumed a large worm. Most people just ran away or looked at me like I was crazy. I kept Snakey for about 5 years. My parents told me one day he escaped, but as I grew older I began to believe maybe he passed away and they wanted to spare me the pain of losing him. Not long after my snake passed away we moved to Ottawa, and my days of trampling through swamps were over. When I was 13 I ordered a book from the book club at school and it was a book about California Kingsnakes. I loved the book so much, and this quickly became my new favorite snake, I mean wow, it could eat rattlesnakes. I remember bugging my parents non stop telling them I wanted a kingsnake. They had no idea where to get one and kept telling me it wasn’t possible. Eventually I gave up and went back to doing normal teenager stuff.
Many years later I was in a pet store and to my amazement they had a California Kingsnake for sale. The woman who ran the pet store, Jeannie was her, refused to sell it to me. I told her I knew so much about them already, and she questioned me and I answered most of her questions. Still she insisted I buy a book on how to care for them, which I did and the next day I came in and got my snake. Over the past twenty seven years I have kept and cared for pretty much every kind of reptile you can imagine, both at my home, and in the 18 years I have worked at Little Rays Reptile Zoo. But - no matter how many amazing species of animals I work with my favorite is still my first ever pet reptile the awesome garter snake, and of course California Kingsnakes.
The province of Ontario has 17 recognized species of snakes. They range in size from the largest snake in Canada - the Grey Ratsnake to the small and diminutive Ringneck snake. The range all across the province and can be found in a wide variety of habitats.
The Eastern Garter snake is probably my favorite of the three species of garter snakes found in Ontario. The three different species are the Eastern gartersnake, Butler’s gartersnake and Red Sided garternsnake. All of them have their own unique characteristics. Perhaps one of the most amazing sites in nature happens in the spring in Manitoba when the Red sided gartersnakes emerge from their over wintering homes, deep in the lime stone pits. Literally thousands of snakes share a deep underground home for the winter and all emerge at roughly the same time.
For a cool look at what happens please follow this link: https://www.gov.mb.ca/sd/wildlife/spmon/narsnakes/snakes_status.html
While this is on my bucket list of things to see and do, their cousins the Eastern gartersnake have many amazing adaptations of their own. They have managed to make a home amongst humans and can occasionally be found right in the downtown area ( or close to it) of some cities. I have often encountered them along the Rideau river, right in the downtown area of Ottawa. In fact I have even managed to locate one of their hibernaculums along the Rideau river. Every spring I make my way to the place where they pop out of their hole in the ground, often slithering around while there is still snow on the ground. This is truly amazing as temperatures of five degrees Celsius or lower can be lethal to some reptiles, but the Eastern gartersnake is well adapted to it’s northern climate. Once they have spent enough time warming up in the sun and temperatures rise to a steady 10 degrees C then the mating begins. Many males will try and mate with a female at the same time, this results in what herpetologists call mating balls. This is truly amazing to witness as the snakes become so focused on what they are trying to do, that they literally ignore everything else. Once the mating is complete and the weather warms up, the males and females go their own way. Of immediate concern is finding food. Garter snake diets in the wild consist mainly of worms, slugs, frogs, tadpoles and fish. The group that hibernates together will spread out along the river bank and find their own territory. Gestation period for the new gartersnakes is about two to three months. The amount of live babies born varies and depends of the size and health of the female, but any where between 8-80 babies snakes can be born from one female. The babies are born alive, but encased in a clear membrane, which they this must get clear of and take their first breath. Once they are born the mother show little to no parental care and the babies are on their own.
Gartersnake are small animals rarely reaching 1 meter in length, as such they have many predators that include hawks, crows, owls, mink, snapping turtles, skunks, raccoons and even bullfrogs. Certainly life as a garter snake is not easy, because along with all of those threats, they also have to deal with humans collecting them for pets and cats and dogs pose a big risk to these small snakes in areas where they live close to people.
Like all snakes gartersnake shed their skin as the grow. If conditions are good they will normally shed their skin in one piece. You can occasionally see a ghostly silhouette of a snake as you take a nature walk or hike.
These small harmless creatures should be a welcome addition to any garden as they will eat the slugs and keep them off of plants. They are certainly one of, if not my favorite animal.
Thanks for stop by and reading my post. I will be profiling many of the more common snakes found through out Ontario over the Spring and summer months.