Gopher Snakes – Our Garden Pets
Please be observant in the garden and watch out for our garden snakes – please do not harm the garden snakes – they are our friends.
What do snakes eat? Gophers, squirrels and rabbits have been a problem at the Antonio Garden, which backs up to the brushy hillside. These creatures are also prey to the local snake population. I like snakes better than vermin…
A short while ago, Eileen found a gopher snake in distress and called for help. She was not sure of snake type, but thought it was a gopher snake; it was.
I used to keep a boa constrictor named ‘Panama’ and am not afraid of them so I went to help free the poor creature. It was trapped in a wad of the bird netting people are using in the garden to keep rodents out.
The net was cutting into the gopher snake’s scales and were keeping him/her from breathing. Eileen supplied a pair of scissors to cut away the mesh strands and then kept him occupied (or was taking this garden snakes photos) while I cut him loose.
While we were working on freeing this one, Eileen mentioned the one in her Antonio Garden plot.
This garden snakes been there for a year, and it is getting bigger. Snakes are not vegetarians – this guy has been helping us restore the balance of nature to not too many rabbits and squirrels.
Last night I got a post from Greg D, which read:
I rescued a large gopher snake, tangled up in black mesh. I saw a snake in the shed the last time I came to the garden and this is the second visit in a row that I’ve seen a snake. Gophers bad, gopher snake good.
The reason the snake is in the shed is possibly from being trapped in there, but much more likely, he/she was after mice or other such pests. Garden snakes will go after the garden rodents and may be found any where. Today I got a report of still another sighting. Please watch your step, and look where you are reaching.
A word on local poisonous snakes:
There aren’t any to speak of. You will find rattlesnakes in the dry, hot, stony areas of the Coastal Range, Simi, Ojai, Santa Paula, but in 60 years of knocking about the hills have not encountered a single one in the Heights. The high number of gopher and king snakes (which do eat rattle snakes), our environment and the amount of development and agriculture probably accounts for that.
This is not to say you won’t run across a poisonous one, but your chances are slim in the garden.
Here’s how to tell what kind of snake it is
Here are two illustrations showing the differences. Primarily, look at the head – rattle snakes heads are much larger than the body, while gopher snakes are much smaller. King snakes heads are the same size as the body.
Body shape is much different, as are the scales. Rattle snakes appear to be rough skinned even from a distance. The ‘Keels’, or sharply raised ridges running the length of each scale are very noticeable. Gopher snakes are (sometimes) slightly keeled, but are generally simply curved. King snake scales are very smooth.
This page shows the varieties of gopher snake colorations you are able to find in the state, from almost black to almost yellow, but generally golden to dark brown in this area. While gopher and rattle snakes both have diamond-like patterning, the scale of the patterns is larger on the rattler.
The other common snake in this area is the king snake, which comes in two distinct variations. The California king snake (lovingly detailed and documented on this page) comes in two varieties, striped and banded. The striped ones I see are chocolate brown, almost black with a yellow racing stripe running their length. The banded variety is shown in the two links above are somewhat less common (at least where I live 1/4 mile from the garden) is sometimes found with red banding, and is often confused with a coral snake, which does not occur here. The kings’ color have red and black stripes adjacent to each other while the coral snakes banding has red and yellow stripes adjacent (“Red & Black, venom lack, Red & Yellow, kill a fellow” – 30s Boy Scout Handbook).
Don’t get bit!
Gopher snakes are constrictors and are not venomous, but they do bite. They can strike a surprising length if startled or they feel threatened (like when you reach for them). They do not have fangs, and the teeth are too short to penetrate all but the thinnest skin, but the teeth point backwards and once they bite can be tenacious in hanging on.
If you do get bit, lift the upper jaw of the snake off of you, then peel away the lower jaw, and try not to harm the creature while you do it. Treat the bite with antiseptic or alcohol swabs – snakes have very poor oral hygiene…
Yes, I said they were constrictors, and that they bite. Constrictors need to hang onto their prey while they coil around it, and their teeth do this. The saw-like shape also allows them to eat prey many times their size. They ratchet their way around the animal after it is deceased.
A final note on the bird netting… I worry that it is counter productive. I have removed numerous lizards trapped in netting like Eileen’s snake, but none of them survived. I also doubt the effectiveness of the soft netting in keeping out rodents. I feel 1/2″ wire mesh from the supply big box, which can be formed into durable cages, is much more effective in protecting your crops and the garden pet who are helping us.
Gopher snakes will also buzz their tails on the ground and hiss. The tail shaking may be mistaken for rattling, but notice the sharp pointed tail without the buttons.
What to do if you encounter a snake in the garden
Don’t panic. It won’t pursue you, doesn’t care to be around you and will leave.