Of the few calls I get from law enforcement, most involve snakes. The other day, I received a phone call from a Rhinelander police officer who had a large snake in a pillowcase and wanted to know if he could bring it in for identification. I told him to bring it over, I would be happy to take a look at it.
It was a beauty, a nice-sized Western foxsnake, sometimes called a pine snake here in the Northwoods. Apparently, it got into an area occupied by humans, a major mistake for a snake. I told the officer that I would take it to another location away from people and release it. Since I was going to pick up my boys from school, I decided to bring the snake along and let them see it. Once they each got a good look, and got to touch it, we let it go in one of its preferred habitats, a river corridor far from town.
At first glance, the foxsnake seems like it should be dangerous. They are one of Wisconsin’s largest snakes. They are a foot long when they emerge from their eggs; full grown, they can get up to 6 feet long. They are light gray or brown with darker brown blotches on their back, and they have a copper-colored head. Furthermore, they use a rattlesnake-like defense behavior. When threatened, they coil up, and vibrate their tail very quickly. If they are in gravel or dry leaves, this makes a startling rattle sound. These snakes are harmless to humans, though. In fact, I try to tell people that these snakes are beneficial. Think of them as built-in pest control for your property. They can swallow animals up to five times the diameter of their head, which means that they can eat mice, chipmunks, ground squirrels and even other snakes! Of course, they also eat birds, rabbits and frogs, which you may or may not consider pests. Like many Wisconsin snakes, they are constrictors, so they grasp their prey and wrap it up with their body to compress them until their lungs and heart cannot function. Then they unhinge their jaws and swallow the animal whole, starting with the head.
These snakes are somewhat territorial; under normal circumstances, I would not recommend relocation. They use the same winter hibernation spot, or hibernaculum, year after year. If you move them to another location and they are unable to find a new spot to hibernate, they could die from exposure. In this case, the snake could not go back to the same location or it would get in trouble again, maybe get killed. I thought if I moved it early enough in the summer, it would have time to get to know a new location and hopefully adapt. During the rest of the year, they use dens that suit them in rock piles, in old stumps or logs.
Typically up here, we see mostly adult snakes getting into trouble in the spring and early summer. Snakes are unable to regulate their own body temperature, so they have to find a warmer or cooler location to make the necessary adjustments. So in the spring, on a sunny morning, they like to find a nice, smooth, flat road to stretch out and warm up on. Unfortunately, they often get run over by vehicles.
When it gets to this time of year, I get more calls because people are starting to open up cabins, use boathouses and work in the yard, and that’s when the snakes are discovered denning in or under buildings. If you see one, don’t be afraid; it is a part of the ecosystem around us, and it is not there to harm you. If it gets into a building, capture it and release it alive in the woods. There’s no need to kill it. They will avoid people if given the chance.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.