On a recent walk with my boys in the Oneida County Forest, we had a close encounter of the serpentine kind. A large 24-inch garter snake slithered across the toes of one of my sons in a frantic effort to get away from me. I was trying to catch it, you see, so that the boys could get a good, close look. Unfortunately, for the first time in my life, the snake outran me, or should I say out-slithered me. This encounter launched a long question and answer session about snakes in the Northwoods.
There are 20 species of snakes in Wisconsin, and only two of them are poisonous. Both poisonous species are rattlesnakes, and they are limited to the bluff country of western and southwestern Wisconsin, near the Mississippi River. We do not have poisonous snakes in the north. I know there are people reading this article right now who disagree with me, who have seen a rattlesnake, or a cobra, and I never tell people what they did or did not see. Snakes are a special animal, though; seeing one raises the heart rate and adrenaline, and some of the behaviors that our native snakes exhibit can lead us to come to a mistaken conclusion. Let’s look at some examples.
The Eastern Hognose is probably my favorite Wisconsin snake. The far northern edge of this snake’s range touches southern Oneida County. It can get three feet long, and it has brown blotches on a brownish gold background. It has some fascinating behavior to protect itself. It can flatten and widen its head similar to a cobra hood, exhibiting black spots that look sort of like big scary eyes. Otherwise, it puts on a death act. It rolls over on its back, tossing and writhing like it is injured. It vomits, and stops moving. Unfortunately, I have seen this behavior on roads in front of vehicles, and it was not effective.
The Fox Snake, or pine snake, is probably my most frequent troublemaker. It’s most common crime is being 3 to 6 feet long and scary. Its coloration is a bit like the copperheads I saw when living in Kansas; in fact, it is often confused for this poisonous snake. Pine snakes have a tan body with reddish brown blotches and a sort of shiny brown stripe on the head. Copperheads emit an odor, sort of like wet musty burlap. Fox snakes got their name from a musky fox or skunk odor they emit when surprised.
But most people notice the rattle. Pine snakes make a warning sound with their tail, shaking it very rapidly in the vegetation or dry leaves. I have heard this sound myself, and it is startling. Unlike rattlesnakes, which grow their own rattle with modified scales inside hollow chambers, the pine snake has a pointed, slender, solid tail.
Fox snakes are desirable, generally, because they eat rodents. They are nonpoisonous constrictors, and they eat mice, chipmunks, ground squirrels, rabbits, frogs and birds. Sadly, these snakes love to lie on our smooth asphalt roads to warm up on cold mornings, and many get run over by vehicles.
Other snakes you might see up here include Brown snake, Northern redbelly snake, Northern ringneck snake, Northern water snake and smooth green snake (grass snake). None of these snakes are poisonous.
Here are some pointers to remember. All of Wisconsin’s poisonous snakes have rounded blunted tails. If you see a snake with a pointed tail up here, it is not poisonous.
Another way to check is to look into its eyes. Poisonous snakes have a vertically elliptical pupil (think cat’s eye) and a nonvenomous snake has a more round pupil, or more horizontal pupil. Nonpoisonous snakes may hiss, coil, lunge and rattle, but these are all desperate attempts to scare you.
In a future column, I will provide tips for deterring or attracting snakes.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.