Garter snakes: Good for the garden!

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  • Photos by DON BARTLING The Western Terrestrial garter snake is olive to greenish gray and one of the two most familiar snakes in Boundary County, the other is the common garter snake.

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    The wide-range of habitats that garter snakes occupy make it easy to understand why they are the most common snake in Idaho.

  • Photos by DON BARTLING The Western Terrestrial garter snake is olive to greenish gray and one of the two most familiar snakes in Boundary County, the other is the common garter snake.

  • 1

    The wide-range of habitats that garter snakes occupy make it easy to understand why they are the most common snake in Idaho.

Recently I saw a garter snake about three feet long wriggling across my driveway, probably going from one flower garden to another. I quickly retrieved my camera and snapped a picture as he paused in his journey.

I approached him with stealth and confidence because I knew he wasn’t poisonous. There are no poisonous snakes in Boundary County. The most common snakes in Boundary County are garter snakes and there are two types; the western terrestrial garter snake and the common garter snake. This one was a western terrestrial garter snake.

Snakes are good for your garden. In the garden snakes can be of great benefit. They eat insects or small rodents, which benefits the garden. My wife was doing some weeding and pulled back some flowers to find a garter snake, often misspoken ‘gardener snake’ because they are so often found in the garden. Debbie let out a yell and the snake did a quick scurry into the corner of the garden. Its heart was probably beating as fast as hers as he quickly disappeared.

Garter snakes are present throughout most of North America. They have a wide distribution due to their varied diets and adaptability to different habitats. Garter snakes populate a variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, grasslands, and lawns. They almost exclusively inhabit areas with some form of water, often an adjacent wetland, stream, or pond. This reflects the fact that amphibians are a large part of their diet.

Garter snakes have a forked tongue, brown or blackish crown and upper lip, and their chin and throats are yellow or white. They can differ in appearance from region to region. Generally, they have three stripes on their backs, one down the center and one on either side of it. These stripes run the length of the snake’s body and can be blue, green, yellow or white. Some snakes have an extremely visible stripe pattern on their scales, some have dark spots alongside the stripes and some have no pattern at all.

The garter snake has a dark, distinguishable head and a long slithery body. Its red and black forked tongue is used as a detection device. This snake pops its tongue out of its mouth to collect chemicals in the air. It then places its tongue back into its mouth and inserts the fork into a special organ, called the Jacobson’s organ, on the roof of its mouth. The snake uses this process to detect scents from other snakes and its next meal.

The garter snake hibernates from late October until about early April in holes, log piles or old rodent burrows and under rocks, but they sometimes come out to warm up their bodies by basking in the sun. Once it emerges from hibernation, it begins the mating process. The garter snake uses its tongue to seek out scent from potential mates. Once successfully mated, females give birth a few months later and each litter can vary from just a few to 80 snakes. When they are born they are about 4 to 8 inches long.

The average length of a garter snake is 6-48 inches and average weight 4-6 ounces. Its average lifespan is 2 years in the wild.

Explore Boundary County. Enjoy the outdoors!

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