Fun with Gopher (Bull) Snakes

I came in from gardening last Sunday to an urgent message from GrandHuckling Joshua. Joshua, his mom and three siblings live on acreage at the eastern edge of Aurora, Colorado – some 20 miles from downtown Denver. “Grandpa, we have a great big rattlesnake on the patio and we need to know what to do with it! Please call.”

By the time I returned the call, Daughter Nicole had reached the sheriff’s office and had received wise advice: “Stay away from it and don’t antagonize it.” Nicole explained that it was very big and coiled up and striking out. It seemed pretty aggressive; not unusual for one of the prairie rattlers which occupy that habitat. Certainly, a rattler was possible there, but we have had this phone dance before, so I had my suspicions. As calmly as possible, with four excited, jabbering grandhucklings in the background, we walked through my standard checklist.

“Are there rattles, or rounded buttons on the tip of the tail?” (“No, I can’t see any, but it is really shaking its tail and making rattle noises.”) “Is its head triangular shape?” (“No, it’s squarish.”) “Is there that dark line of scales across the top of its head?” (“Yes. …So it’s a bull snake, isn’t it?”) That established, I suggested it was on the sunny patio, warming itself. It would likely be moving off soon – just leave it alone and keep the kids away from it.

An hour later, the phone rang again. “Now there are two of them, Grandpa! And they are hissing and striking at us!”

When Nicole answered my return call, I wondered why they were “hissing and striking” at the kids. “I told them to leave them alone,” she said, “but every time I turn my back, they’re out on the patio teasing them! Their listening isn’t working. It’s too exciting. Can you talk to them?” “Okay,” I agreed, “get the brats on speaker phone.”

“Look,” I said to the gaggle of grandhucklings, “you have horses and dogs – lots of them – being boarded and raised there, right?” (Murmuring of agreement.) “And lots of mice, huh?” (Murmuring of further agreement, with outbursts of hating mice in grain and feed.) “Okay. These gopher snakes – bull snakes – are your best friends. They live on the mice, and the more mice you have, the more bull snakes you will have. Want the bull snakes to go away? Then be more effective at getting rid of the mice. In the meantime, you brats have to stop teasing the snakes on the warm patio to make their bodies work right – they can’t keep themselves warm like you can.” (Mutterings of “Aw, okay…” and, “So what if it bites us?”) “Well it’s not poisonous. But its teeth are sharp and angled backward, so it can be hard to get its mouth off you and the bite could hurt – and your mom will douse a lot of antiseptic on the bite because there are all sorts of nasty germs and bacteria on those mouse-eating teeth! You won’t like it.”

“Look, guys, these are your friends. Don’t pick on them. Nicole, you could probably keep a long stick to gently move the snakes off where you don’t want them. Just be gentle and kind. AND you could use the stick to beat bad children.” (Protestations about how well-behaved they all are.) “One last thing, guys. Don’t kill the bull snakes. The only reason to kill one is if you are starving and you are going to eat it!” (Miscellaneous “Eww” sounds followed by 10-year-old Kristian’s request to try one, “cause I’m very hungry and they look pretty fat!”) “Good luck with that. I’ll talk to you brats later. I love you. Bye.”

Returning to my gardening, I found myself remembering when Edward, last of the Hucklings, was about two. On our property in the Monument breaks country southeast of Denver, we and Gusto, our Labrador retriever, startled a six-foot bull snake in dried grass. It hissed, coiled, rattled the grass and struck out. For a few seconds it convinced my heart it was a rattler. I can still feel the terror of that moment – I’ve often thought that adrenaline rush triggered the kid’s desire to study snakes.

Be that as it may, the Wildlife Education Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association requires the following. Our Pacific gopher snake is Pituophis catenifer catenifer. It is buff-colored with brown blotches, dark lines on the sides of its neck and a smooth tail tip. As mentioned above, a darker row of scales atop its head gives it the “bull” handle. Ours may surpass four feet. They will climb trees after birds, or eggs, and are effective ground hunters. Constrictors, they coil around and crush rodents or birds too big to swallow alive. They also eat lizards and other snakes. Common in most habitats here east of the Cascades, their bite is harmless, but painful and infectious. Ectothermic, they can’t internally regulate body temperature and are most active at warm times.

Bull snakes hibernate from October to April, often sharing hybernacula (dens, often little more than south facing rock crevices deep enough to avoid winter’s worst) with rattlers, garter snakes and others. Imagine sleeping all winter entwined in a ball of snakes to conserve energy and stay above freezing. After emergence and mating, the females lay from four to 20 leathery eggs in warm soil. At 11 weeks, the young will hatch and begin fending for themselves, often becoming food for raptors, coyotes, foxes or other snakes.

Gopher snakes are peaceful, beneficial critters. Unfortunately, their resemblance to rattlers often triggers a “kill first, identify later” response from people, and many die purposely under car tires.

Be kind; as Edward and the Snake Whisperer of Paradise, Dan Beck, might say, “Gopher snakes are cool animals!”

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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