Invisible tenants: garden offers home to ‘imported’ garter snakes

Suburban Wild columnist explores the humble garter snake

A few years ago our family camped on a Gulf Island which harboured what seemed a million garter snakes in the undergrowth. When it came time to go home, one member of the family (you can be sure it wasn’t an adult one) decided to smuggle out a few of the snakes. Only after arriving home did I realize that I’d been driving a cargo of socks filled with writhing reptiles.

Once home, my son put the snakes into a box which seemed secure, but wasn’t. Houdini-like, they escaped one by one, and that was the end of that — or so we supposed. Years later a guest standing in the driveway called us out to view a snake he’d spotted in the rockery, which was covered by a protective blanket of juniper. They had been there all along (or their descendants had), our garden their Eden.

The indigenous common garter snake is a shy and harmless creature. It hibernates in dens over winter and emerges in spring, mating immediately. Males compete for access to females as they leave the den, and a writhing ball might form of males surrounding one female in the middle. Here’s where our sense of repugnance kicks in: even those who can tolerate an individual snake recoil from a writhing ball of them.

A pregnant female might produce between five and dozens of babies, which are born small but fully-formed. They like to live in marshy areas or near streams (you can sometimes glimpse them around Bowker Creek), and feed on toads, tadpoles, even small mammals and birds. In our garden they probably existed on insects and slugs. Since they need water, they will only be present in the well-watered garden, which means that watering restrictions severely reduce their urban habitat.

A fascinating fact about snakes is that they descended from limbed ancestors, and still possess four vestigial feet inside their bodies. Slithering must have been an adaptation to conditions which provided a niche for those who could pour long sleek bodies into and around soil, rock and roots. This ability to disappear serves garter snakes well, as a crow will snatch one up if it gets a chance, dangling the snake from its beak in mid-air.

The sinuously serpentine movements of snakes, whether darting or flowing, seem aesthetic to some, but most people feel some degree of aversion. What is it that repels us, to the extent that snakes even became the star villain in the founding myth of the Judaeo-Christian religion?

In other traditions, of course, snakes represent the Great Mother Goddess, both for their graceful silent ubiquity and their ability to shed their skins, thus “dying” and being re-born.

Resurrection magic aside though, snakes inspire a sense of fear which extends even to our primate cousins. Monkeys and chimpanzees panic at the sight of a snake, although as with us if they become habituated to them, in a zoo for example, the fear response lessens.

Clearly, kids are less phobic than adults. When we rediscovered the snakes that had been imported into our garden it was pleasing to realize they had been there all along — silent and contented — but I was also glad that they had stayed discreetly out of sight.

Barbara Julian is a local writer and nature enthusiast. She writes monthly about the many fascinating creatures making their homes in and around Oak Bay.