What is it about boys and garter snakes? I saw a garter snake just the other day, and rather than catch it like most boys would do, I let it go on its way. Boys catch snakes to observe them, and also pull pranks. Although I suspect few young boys bring garter snakes to school these days, for those among us that can remember country school, I would bet there is at least one memory of some episode involving a boy, school, and a garter snake. It also likely involved a girl or perhaps even the teacher.
Garter snakes are probably our most well-known snake. North Dakota is home to two species of garter snakes: the common garter snake (sometimes called the red-sided garter) and the plains garter. They are quite similar in appearance.
Both species are known to have the rather unusual habit of congregating by the hundreds to hibernate. These hibernacula are below the frost line, provide protection from predators, and may be used repeatedly over many years. One hibernacula discovered several years ago in the Bottineau area was in a cellar, and ended up causing considerable problems for the homeowner. No doubt some of you have heard about the Narcisse (“Narsis”) hibernacula north of Winnipeg where as many as 50,000 red-sided garter snakes congregate to hibernate. It is generally considered to be the largest concentration of the species in the world.
Upon emerging from hibernation the mating season commences. Through communication by pheromones, a large “mating ball” composed of a female and up to a couple dozen male suitors may form. Once the mating is over the female leaves for a suitable place to eventually give birth to her young. Gestation will last two to three months before the females will give live birth in late summer to somewhere around 10-50 six inch long young.
But back to kids and garter snakes. Like most boys, I have handled my fair share of garter snakes without experiencing any problems. That is probably normal. However, several years ago I caught one again, but the snake released what has been described as a “sweet smelling musk.” But I found nothing sweet about it. It was foul nasty stuff! So if you get the urge to handle a garter snake this summer, be forewarned. That musk seems to be a pretty good defense mechanism, and it will take lots of soap to wash it off.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.