University of Nebraska - Lincoln Extension Educator Dennis Ferraro is also the resident herpetologist at the School of Natural Resources. Dennis writes timely articles on animals that you might see on your acreage in Nebraska, ranging from mammals to insects.
This month features one of Dennis' favorite topics - snakes. To the right, Dennis is helping a snake (not a garter snake) shed its skin.
Garter snakes are very common in residential gardens and suburban areas across the entire state of Nebraska. In many regions they are more abundant in residential landscapes compared to wild areas. The Common or Red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) and the Plains garter snake (Thamnophis radix) are found statewide.
Garter snakes have contrasting colored lines running lengthwise down the entire body - three lines on the middle of the back and one on each side. The position of the lateral or side lines differs with each species. These line patterns are extremely variable in coloration of these lines and background pattern. While commonly cream, yellow, and orange, some stripes may be very dark or even bright red. Garter snakes with white and bluish coloration have found in some urban areas of Nebraska. A rule of thumb in Nebraska is any snake with a line running down its body length mid-center and/or on each side is one of our Garter snakes.
Garter snakes have a wide range of prey and are very opportunistic predators. They prefer soft-bodied prey such as earthworms, grubs, termites, and other soft insects. If near a garden pond or water source, minnows and frogs are preferred. A Garter snake does not constrict its prey; it rubs it against the ground or squeezes against a fixed object with its body until the food can be swallowed. As with all snakes, a Garter snake must swallow its food whole and is not capable of taking a bite out of a prey item. The size of the snake’s mouth gap is its primary limiting factor.
When a portion of a garter snake’s home range is disturbed in such a way that vegetation is removed and cover habitat is destroyed, snakes will no longer be seen in that area. Reduce the attractiveness of your property to snakes by removing debris, rocks, brush, wood piles and tall grass that provide cover for snakes. Locations: look more “sterile” – areas with less weedy vegetation and little cover have very few snake populations.
Garter snakes can only burrow in loose soil. Cover loose soil with sharp gravel (lava rock) and caulk around stoops and slabs. Remove rock walls known to harbor large numbers of garter snakes and replace with solid cement structures. Using rock or lumber walls that are tight fitting with few areas where snakes could find refuge may decrease snake numbers.
Trim plants, shrubs and bushes, and eliminate low and branches close to the ground to lessen the favorability of habitat. Also, removing debris and high vegetation may increase predation pressure on the snakes. Skunks, raccoons, hawk, and most any predator will eat a garter snake.