Ssssensational ssssnakes

By Larry Cornelis – President, Sydenham Field Naturalists

I’ve been accustomed to seeing snakes since I was a toddler.

Larry Cornelis Photo

We have a family farm north of Wallaceburg along the North Sydenham River and it’s always been home to numerous snakes.

The pastures, hayfields, orchard, barns and river banks have supported numerous snakes of about five species including the ‘endangered’ Eastern Fox Snake.

My daughter Becky is fascinated by snakes and is a brave snake handler sometimes reaching down into the tall grasses and weeds of the pasture to come up with a four or five-foot fox snake in hand.

This usually results in some people running for the hills screaming.

We have about 17 or 18 species of snakes in Ontario, but any one particular habitat will only have a few.

Locally we don’t have a poisonous snake today, but there were massasauga and timber rattlesnakes historically.

The last reported massasauga in our area was near Sarnia in the mid-1960s.

Further afield there are massasaugas in the Georgian Bay area and possibly still some at the Ojibway Park in Windsor.

Venomous snakes have slitted or elliptical pupils and non-venomous have round pupils.

They can’t wink or close their eyes so you can always see their pupils.

Snakes are intriguing creatures, but they are among the most maligned and least understood.

Locally, snakes are harmless and very shy and go to great lengths to avoid people.

Still, about one third of us are frightened by snakes, I mean sometimes terrified by them.

Submitted Photo

Maybe that’s through lack of knowledge and the fact that tens of thousands of people are killed every year by poisonous snakes, mostly in Africa, India and Australia.

Snakes are cold-blooded creatures and love to sunbathe to increase their body temperature.

They prefer a range of 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

I’ve seen many sunbathing on roads, rocks and sheets of plywood or metal.

They will hide under things too.

In our area, during the winter, they go underground or find somewhere where it doesn’t freeze to basically hibernate.

We built a hibernaculum for over wintering snakes on our farm.

Not sure it’s being used but it probably is.

Snakes have dry skin, not slimy like many people expect.

Their skin does not stretch like ours so they have to shed their skin three to five times a year.

I’ve collected numerous snake skins over the years.

Most snakes are soloists, only getting together to breed in spring or early summer.

Sometimes they will winter together.

They are carnivorous eating rodents, amphibians, insects, worms, bird eggs and even baby birds.

Submitted Photo

They can swallow surprisingly big things because their jaws can dislocate to open their mouth wider.

They don’t chew but swallow things whole.

Snakes get by with eight to 30 meals a year because of their slow metabolism.

30 per cent of snake species give live birth to young and the rest lay eggs in warm humus material.

A newly born snake is called a neonate.

Snakes that hatch are called hatchlings or neonates.

The neonates have to fend for themselves.

Snakes can grow fast and apparently never stop growing but that process slows down with age.

Snakes play an important role in our habitats and need our help.

They have as much right to exist as a bunny rabbit or a chickadee.

They should never be killed.

Maybe we can dispel the fear of snakes through education and sharing facts about these fascinating creatures.

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