Snakes in the garden, part 1: flower bed snakelings

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Shiny! Eastern worm snake with the gardener’s fingers for scale. Perhaps I should have cleaned the clay from under my fingernails before taking a picture.

I have been fascinated with snakes since I was a child, so I love living in a state where I stand a fairly good chance of seeing one whenever I go for a walk outside.  Of the thirty-seven snake species native to North Carolina, at least eight call our garden home. Three of those species are tiny serpents that actually live under the mulch or burrow in the soil of the flower beds.  I’ll discuss them here and save the larger snakes (and the single venomous species) for another day.

Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus)

This is perhaps the oddest of the little flower bed snakes.  A worm snake has smooth, shiny scales, reduced eyes, and a small pointed head that allows it to burrow rapidly through loose soil hunting for earthworms.  They are really very pretty little animals, with glossy scales, dark chocolate brown back, and pinkish belly, brighter in some specimens than others.  Worm snakes are hardly larger than a big earthworm, and unsuspecting gardeners might actually mistake one for a worm.   In fact, they can burrow and disappear so rapidly that unless you are paying attention, you could dig them up all day and not notice them.  To catch one, I usually grab a handful of the soil or mulch that the snake has disappeared into, and then sift it between my fingers to see if I was successful.

I almost never see worm snakes except when I am digging holes for new plants, but very occasionally I find them under rotten logs or flower pot saucers or will uncover one when pulling up a clump of weeds.  Once–and only once–I found one climbing through the twigs of an azalea bush on a very damp and warm April morning.  I was surprised to find the large specimen shown below hiding in a hot gravel pile in full sun:

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When I pick up a worm snake, it usually coils tightly around my fingers and pushes against my hand with its pointed head.  I assume it is attempting to burrow:

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A lighter colored specimen with a pale brown, rather than pink, belly.

Smooth earth snake (Virginia valeriae)

Smooth earth snakes are about the same size as worm snakes and have very similar habits, but they not appear to be as specialized for burrowing.  Their eyes are larger than those of worm snakes, and they look more like typical little snakes.  Their glossy bodies can be either dark gray or pale gray with dark spots.

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Smooth earth snake. A dark specimen without obvious spots.

Like worm snakes, they are very inoffensive and never attempt to bite.  They are great snakes for small children to gently catch and examine:

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The first snake that my daughter caught all by herself.
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Another kid-caught earth snake
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A smooth earth snake shedding its skin

Brown snake (Storeria dekayi)

Brown snakes lurk in loose mulch but do not seem to burrow in soil.  Like worm snakes and earth snakes, they are inoffensive and never attempt to bite.  One year, the kids and I kept a brown snake for several weeks and fed it slugs, which it consumed enthusiastically.  Clearly, this is a useful snake to have around the garden.

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The scales above a brown snake’s eyes give it a fierce look, but there’s no need to worry unless you are a slug.

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Other flower bed snakes

Depending on where in the piedmont you live, you may also find several other small snakes in your flower beds.  Rough earth snakes (Virginia striatula) are reported to be common in some vacant lots in Durham and Raleigh, and I have seen a southeastern crowned snake (Tantilla coronata) that was caught in a Durham city park.  If your garden is adjacent to a creek or moist woodland, you may find a redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata), which resembles a brown snake with a bright orange belly, or perhaps a ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus), surely one of the prettiest North Carolina snakes.  Keep your eyes open.

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A little ringneck snake that I found under a rock beside New Hope Creek in Orange County

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Snakes in the garden, part 1: flower bed snakelings

  1. You’re lucky to have such a friendly variety of creatures to play with. Here (in UK) I have just three – the slow worm (Anguis fragilis) which is actually a legless lizard and will give you a nasty nip if you let it; the grass snake (Natrix natrix) which I see rarely but which is relatively friendly; and the adder (Vipera berus) which I leave alone as it’s venomous. Fortunately it’s very sensitive to vibration and the odd sighting in the spring (I’ve never seen one here later in the year) is usually of the back half disappearing through one of the hedgehog holes in the fencing. If I happen to see one basking in the sun, a heavy stamp of the foot from a respectful distance sends it on its way.

    Looking forward to part 2!

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  2. Thanks, John. I hope to have part 2 posted in a couple of days. We also have a legless lizard in North Carolina, the glass lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis), but they live on the coastal plain, not in my part of the state. Our local grass snake equivalent, the eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) does visit the garden, but they prefer a nearby stream where they can catch frogs and salamanders.

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