One of the things I’m occasionally asked by visitors to the riverbank is: “You got a lot of snakes around?”
Most of the time, it’s a good bet the questioner lives in the city—or if they’re daring, and have in their own way given in to the pioneer spirit, in one of those well-manicured suburban developments with sidewalks and grass and the odd miniature tree your average countryman might consider a bush. Sure, their development may be located less than a half-mile beyond the last strip-mall, in what was once a corn or soybean field—but they consider themselves homesteaders surviving on the edge of civilization. Why, they'll report, proud of their ability to weather hardship, they have to actually get in their Beemer and drive to the nearest Starbucks!
These folks, bless their trembling souls, view my riverside home as they might a rough compound on the banks of the Amazon. The thicket of greenery along the water and the tall trees poking high into a smog-free sky is, to them, a jungle. And like any good jungle remembered from reruns of the old black-and-white Tarzan movies they watched as a kid, the dark tangles of willow and hackberry and sycamore must doubtless be crammed with slithering serpents.
Well…no. Sorry to disappoint. But we riverbankers are no more overrun with snakes than we are with frogs and toads and turtles. I do see a snake from time to time—perhaps a small garter snake in the yard, or a water snake near or in the stream. And that’s about the extent of such encounters; I don’t wade through masses of writhing snakes to check the mailbox.
Regarding water snakes, there are two species found hereabouts. The northern water snake, Nerodia sipedon, is generally the most common species seen along local lakeshores and streams. Yet I almost never find one on my section of water. Instead, I’m more apt to see a queen snake, Regina septemvittata, a fairly uncommon member of the water snake family.
Queen snakes, in spite of their name, are water snakes—though they’re far prettier than their plebian northern cousins. Neither snake is poisonous. But the northern water snake is unquestionably more cantankerous and aggressive—quick to make a threatening strike at your boot toe or reaching hand, and ready to bite if you pick them up carelessly. If that’s not enough, they’ll reiterate their hostility by releasing a squirt of malodorous feces and back it up with a shot of stinky musk from their anal gland.
The shyer queen snake, in contrast, is rather docile. You can usually capture one quite easily—though the double dose of foul smelling s
cent remains a possibility.
Queen snakes seldom grow larger than a couple of feet. They hunt by smell rather than heat detection or sight, and often capture their prey under water. They feed almost exclusively on aquatic fare—minnows, tadpoles, frogs, snails—though the bulk of their diet is newly molted crayfish, what a bait fishermen calls a “soft craw.” For this reason—because crayfish are found only in clean, unpolluted rivers and creeks—queen snakes are a good indicator species of a stream’s high water quality.
I sometimes watch a queen snake hunting around the edge of the big pool in front of the cottage. The snake will swim from rock-to-rock, then dive and investigate underwater, resurface, and repeat a time or two before moving to another location.
The other day I noted several clumps of midges milling about on a small section of slowly-backswirling water. Minnows would regularly dart up and nab a bug off the surface. All the while, a queen snake kept surfacing and diving through this same area, presumably feeding on the minnows working the midges.
The queen snakes in the photos (there are two different snakes) regularly sun themselves on the rails of the narrow deck which spans the width of the cottage and overlooks the river. I’ve allowed a wild grape vine to grow all over the water side of this deck, climbing through the lattice so it now drapes from the handrail to the edge of the water, a dozen feet below, like a thick green curtain. One day last week, I counted three queen snakes…uh…hanging around.
This is typical queen snake behavior. Queen snakes like to bask on a limb or root above the water, and usually drop off immediately at any nearby movement or the first hint of danger. However, with my deck snakes, I’ve found that if I’m careful, I can move freely around without causing them alarm.
Incidentally, this deck—while thirty feet long—is only about six feet wide. In case you’re wondering, I’ve never seen one of these queen snakes any closer to the cottage walls than this six-foot distance; they’re remain discreetly on the water side.
I suppose for most readers, this sounds like too many snakes too close to the house. But I don’t mind them being around. They’re perfectly harmless (unless you’re a soft craw) and no trouble. That’s sufficient to make them good neighbors, in my book. Plus I like the fact they keep reminding me that my beloved river is healthy.