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Take Me Outside

New Hampshire’s snakes are fascinating creatures who love the summer sun

A snake's presence dampens a break in the clouds yesterday for Jacob Higgins, 9, of N. Hampton (right); his brother Andrew,7; and their dad, Mike, at Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown.

(Concord Monitor photo/Ken Williams)

A snake's presence dampens a break in the clouds yesterday for Jacob Higgins, 9, of N. Hampton (right); his brother Andrew,7; and their dad, Mike, at Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown. (Concord Monitor photo/Ken Williams)

Summer is the time when many folks head to the beach or hang out by the pool to soak up some sun. But people aren’t the only sun worshippers. Reptiles like the common garter (not garden) snake cannot thermo-regulate, or maintain their own body temperature. They actually rely on the sun to stimulate their bodily functions, such as digestion and reproduction. The internal temperature of snakes parallels the outside temperature. When it is cold and dreary, they are cold and less active. When the sun shines, you may see them coiled on a rock pile or winding through the grass.

Even when they are warm and more active, snakes may be hard to observe (some people prefer it that way). In our region most of them are cryptically colored with either stripes, blotches or a color that mimics their habitat. Yellow stripes on the garter snake or ribbon snake can look like streaks of sun on the forest floor. The slender, smooth green snake hangs out in green grass. The northern water snake may blend in with a dark mottled rock along a shoreline. The most colorful of our snakes, the milk snake with bands of dark red or brown and gray can also be mistaken for leaves on the ground, until it moves.

When they do move, snakes can slither quickly. For people who aren’t wild about snakes, this is usually the most disturbing part of an encounter because it can be startling. But there is really nothing to be afraid of. Of the 11 species of snake that live in New Hampshire, only the timber rattlesnake is venomous, and it is extremely rare, listed as an endangered species and unlikely to be encountered.

Getting past the startled stage can be rewarding, because snakes are quite interesting. The muscles in their bodies and the scales on their bellies push and pull them along in a smooth glide that seems effortless. The northern water snake has tiny ridges on each scale that act like a ship’s keel and help it swim through the water. The strong muscles of the large black racer make it an excellent tree climber. Without feet or hands, arms or legs, they move in ways that rival any four legged creature.

Each species has its own role to play. From the diminutive redbelly snake, measuring no more than 16 inches long, to the 6-foot black racer, size influences what snakes can eat. Smaller snakes feed mostly on worms and insects. The redbelly and its relative the brown snake have jaws adapted for twisting snails out of their shells. Milk snakes, New Hampshire’s only constricting snake, are frequently found in barns, where they seek out rodents. Because the racer is a good climber, it often feeds on birds and eggs. The water snake, given its habitat, consumes fish and aquatic animals.

Though snakes are not interested in or capable of making a meal out of us, they do have several ways of defending themselves against overly curious or perhaps malicious humans.

Anyone who has picked up a garter snake knows that they release a foul smelling liquid that makes you wish you’d left them alone. The eastern hognose snake will raise and broaden its head to mimic a cobra’s hood. If that doesn’t deter you, it may roll over and play dead. The milk snake may vibrate its tail against the ground like a rattle snake.

Whether you are frightened or fascinated by these amazing creatures, it is important to give them their place. Because they are predators, they help to reduce the populations of insects and rodents, which can be pests in our gardens, yards or homes. If you want to attract these natural pest controllers, making a pile of rocks or leaving some boards on the ground will provide a place for them to hide. Hiding is one of the things they do best.

So even if you don’t see any snakes, look for their shed skin. When they eat and grow, they shed their old skin which does not expand with their bodies. These sheddings are a sure sign that you have a healthy reptilian partner providing pest control in your neighborhood, and may be seeking out some warm summer sun.

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