Garter Snakes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) with tongue out,

If you live in North America, the chances are that you have seen a Garter snake at some point in your life. Garter snakes are some of the most common varieties of snakes. 

Garter snakes are harmless. In fact, many people keep them as pets. Let’s talk a bit more about this fascinating animal.

At Environmental Pest Management, we respect and care for all aspects of nature. We understand that every creature has its place in the fabric of nature, even the ones that aren’t’ cute and cuddly. 

A juvenile Plains Garter Snake lies coiled in a gravel opening

How do I know this snake is a Garter snake?

Garter snakes are not the easiest to identify. They come in a wide variety of colors, but most have three stripes running down their bodies. The color of each individual snake and its stripes depends on its species. 

Some species have intricate patterns as well as stripes, making each one unique. 

Garter snakes are small, between 23 to 30 inches in length. They have been known to reach lengths of five feet in rare cases. They are often stout-bodied with a ridge down the center of their back. 

One more defining characteristic of the Garter snake is its dual-colored tongue. Some of the species of Garter snake possess a mild neurotoxic venom, but even those bites are not dangerous to humans.  

There have been some cases of mild swelling and itching in humans after a bite. Allergic reactions are rare, but they can happen. If you are bitten, you need to clean the bite immediately and thoroughly. 

Where do Garter snakes live?

The answer is, almost anywhere. Garter snakes are not picky in their preferred habitat. You can find them in meadows, woodlands, grassy knolls, and anywhere that is close to a source of water. 

The Garter snake can be found all across the North American continent. The largest population concentration of this snake can be found in the Eastern United States. In fact, it is the state reptile of Massachusetts. 

Interestingly enough, Garter snakes have been spotted in the Northernmost US state, Alaska. Alaska has no native snakes, so these appearances are a bit of a mystery. 

A Common Garter Snake coiled up on a boardwalk.

Garter Snake Habits

Garter snakes are shy. They will generally avoid humans and animal contact and prefer to be left alone. If you have Garter snakes in your yard or garden, chances are you may not even know. 

Garter snakes are incredibly active. They come out both night and day. They are typically ground-dwellers, but they may also climb shrubs, vines, or trees to escape predators. 

Some species of Garter snakes are even proficient swimmers. 

Whenever a Garter snake feels threatened, they produce a foul-smelling musk. They use this odor to defend themselves against predators. This musk comes in handy because the Garter snake has many predators.

Some of the common predators of the Garter snake include-

  • Hawks
  • Crows
  • Bears
  • Bullfrogs
  • Snapping turtles
  • Foxes
  • Squirrels
  • Raccoons

The species of Garter snake that live in colder climates spend their winters in hibernation. They gather in large groups and hibernate together in hidden dens. These clusters of Garter snakes can number into the hundreds.

Garter snakes will travel great distances to hibernate in their particular communal den. Some dens in Canada can contain thousands of snakes.

Garter snakes make excellent pets. Their small size and daytime activity level make them the ideal pet for someone who wants a snake. They are small enough that even children can hold them with an adult nearby. 

If you are considering adding a Garter snake into your family, don’t catch one from the wild. Depending on where you live, that practice might be illegal. 

Instead of facing the potential backlash that can come with the dangerous and potentially illegal catch, contact a pet store or breeder. You can even try to find a rescue organization. 

You can feel good in the knowledge that you have given a second chance to an animal that probably needed it. 

For your new pet, you will need a 40-50 gallon aquarium. Make sure it has a lid that can be secured. Your snake will need fresh water, and you will need to keep the tank in a warm place. 

Consider purchasing a heat lamp to keep your new critter warm. It would be best if you fill your new pet’s habitat with rocks and a bed of shredded paper. Just make sure you change the paper frequently. 

Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) basking

Garter Snake Diet

Garter snakes feed on all the pests that you would like to disappear. Some of the principal sources of food for a Garter snake include-

  • Slugs
  • Snails
  • Grasshoppers
  • Small insects
  • Small rodents
  • Worms
  • Frogs
  • Salamanders
  • Fish
  • Tadpoles

The neurotoxin found in the venom of Garter snakes can cause paralysis in their prey. They use their quick reflexes and sharp teeth to help them catch their prey. Like most snakes, Garters swallow their food whole. 

Garter Snake Reproduction

Peak Garter snake mating season occurs congruently with the hibernation period. Large concentrations of Garter snakes emerge from their communal dens. They also gather together in large numbers right before the hibernation period begins. 

For Garter snakes that live in warmer climates, they don’t hibernate. For those species, instead of a mating season tied to hibernation patterns, they rely on pheromones to find mates. 

The female Garter snake puts off a strong-smelling pheromone, which will attract dozens of males. After the mating is complete, the female snake carries the sperm inside her body until she is ready to fertilize her eggs. 

She will give birth to anywhere between 20 to 40 babies at a time. Garter snakes birth live young. The baby snakes are pretty much on their own right away. 

A garter snake crosses across rough pavement.

Garter snakes are incredibly common, but thankfully they are not dangerous for humans. Humans and Garter snakes can live in relative harmony together. 

If you have questions or concerns about Garter snakes or any other pests, contact Environmental Pest Management. We will make your pest problems our pest problems, and taking care of pest problems is our business.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *