Sunday, August 17, 2008

Don't step on the snakes!

This month's column describes some encounters with snakes at our home in Danvers.

Don't step on the snakes!
By Sandy Nichols Ward

"Don't step on the snakes!" my mother said as we headed out the front door. She was a nature lover who taught us to respect wildlife. A family of garter snakes had taken up residence under the large granite block we used as our door step. The snakes liked to bask there in the sun. We learned to open the front door slowly and give the snakes time to slither out of the way. It was fun to watch  them move, especially the little ones.

The snakes caused us no harm and we were not to harm them. My mother never expressed fear of snakes, so we weren't afraid. As children we had a healthy curiosity about the snakes who shared our yard. I must confess that sometimes I may have scared or traumatized a young snake as I picked it up to examine or put in a box to keep as a pet.  I liked the yellow stripes along the body and the smooth feel of its skin. My mother had mixed feelings, though, about captive snakes. She encouraged our interest in wildlife and was glad that we wanted close-up experience. After all, she was the one who initiated the capture of polliwogs each spring and set an aquarium on the kitchen table so we could watch them grow into frogs. She helped us feed lettuce to the turtles we captured and kept in a box. So the idea of keeping a snake in a box seemed acceptable, at least for a while. But when we discovered the box empty and could not locate the escaped snake,  my mother was upset. Whether she was more concerned for the poor snake or had qualms of her own about a loose snake inside the house, I never knew. I was preoccupied at the time with the loss of my little pet.

On one occasion my mother did express serious concern about a snake and told us to stand back while she called Gilbert Merrill, a friend and naturalist who worked at Boston's Museum of Science. This snake was large, much larger that any garter snake. And its coloration was different: brown with mottled patterns shaped somewhat like diamonds across its back. It was coiled in a deep pile of leaves in a small space behind our house bounded by the main foundation, the el extension on the kitchen, and the concrete steps from the back door. In other words, the snake was cornered in a three-sided pocket. We had run up the steps suddenly and startled the snake, which then shook its tail in alarm, making quite a rattling sound. Thus my mother reported a possible diamond-backed rattlesnake in our yard. Gibby responded excitedly: if we really had a rattler,  he'd drive right out to see it; rattlesnakes were so rare in New England! He described to my mother the characteristics she should look for to distinguish it from the more common Eastern Milk Snake. A milk snake could shake its tail like a rattler, and if in dry leaves, a rattling sound might be produced. Milk snakes hunt and eat mice and other small rodents, so they are considered beneficial to have around houses or barns.   We were pleased to discover that the big snake by our back door was indeed a milk snake. We let it remain, and from time to time would see it again in our yard. We learned to walk carefully and be observant of nature around us, so as not to step on snakes in our path.

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