Common garter snake at Riverside Park in Smithers. (Grant Harris photo)

Common garter snake at Riverside Park in Smithers. (Grant Harris photo)

The Nature Nut

Spring is a good time to see garter snakes as they emerge from their winter hibernation den in the valley.

The den (hibernaculum) is often located in a south-facing rocky place. Access to the den is frequently through very narrow crevices and hard to find. Many snakes will share the same den.

I was told by a lady who was born here that there is a hibernaculum on the mountain side of the railway tracks. I have never found it, but I have seen and rescued snakes from the area around the courthouse building. One, bleeding badly from the rough sidewalk, was desperately trying to get into the darkness of the building’s entrance.

The species seen here in the valley and up to 120 miles north of Prince Rupert is the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis ssp. fitchi). It is very variable in colour and is the most widespread snake in B.C.

Their preferred habitat is in or near moist or wet places where they can find their prey such as snails, slugs, worms, amphibians, and the occasional bird.

Snakes are ‘cold-blooded’ meaning they are not able to generate their own body heat. As they emerge in spring, they look for a suitable place (a log or rock) to bask in the sun and get warm.

Mating usually occurs in the spring after emerging from the den, so it is a good place to see them. Often several males will attempt to mate with a single female forming a writhing ‘ball’ of snake bodies. However, usually only one male is successful.

Females are live-bearing and may give birth to anywhere from two to 85 young (normally around 20). Once the young are born, they are left to fend for themselves.

Garter snakes are not venomous, but they do have teeth and can bite. The forked tongue that flicks in and out of the mouth is a sensory organ they use to smell the chemicals in their environment.

If a garter snake is captured and afraid, it will emit excrement and the most foul-smelling fluid I have ever encountered. I do not recommend picking one up.