One of the most alarming things your average person will encounter is an unexpected snake in the garden. Moving through the furrows or coiled up at the base of one of your plants, it is enough to give you quite a shock!
But, common gardener’s wisdom often tells us to leave such residents alone. Whether we do or don’t depends on what kind of snake we are dealing with. So, are garden snakes poisonous?
Yes, garter snakes (a.k.a. garden snakes), do possess mild neurotoxic venom. However, complications from bites are rare, and they rarely inject a meaningful amount into people.
Dealing with garter snakes in the garden is made even more complicated by the fact that garden snake is actually a corrupted term for garter snake, of which there are many kinds with many colorations and patterns.
This article will help you make sense of the subject and hopefully identify these generally benign snakes.
What Do Garter Snakes Look Like?
Describing the appearance of “garden” snakes could be an entire article or series of article in itself. Among garter snakes there are many subspecies which further vary depending on their region.
Some snakes are a solid color, whereas others have distinctive thin stripes or bands running the entire length of their body starting just behind the head.
Some might have spots, or patches of spots, or other regular or irregular patterns.
They run the gamut from tans and browns to black or even a gray blue color, sometimes with contrasting colors on the belly, head or tip of the tail.
However, all subspecies are possessed of a generally stout build, and vary in length from about a foot and a half to around four and a half feet in length, with a narrow, diamond shaped head, blunt snout and large round eyes with round pupils.
Are They Venomous?
Yes, or at least most subspecies are. For the longest time, the garter snake family was thought to be non-venomous.
However, around the turn of the century it was discovered that these snakes do indeed produce a neurotoxic venom, if a very mild one.
But considering the sheer amount of garter snakes out in the world and their usual run-ins with people, it stands to reason there have been a great many bites and, to my knowledge, no recorded deaths resulting from such. This is due to the unique characteristics of the garter snake and its venom.
Compared to other venomous snakes, their venom is quite weak, typically only causing bruising, itching and mild pain at the bite site, and rarely requires supporting care.
Where are Garter Snakes Found?
Garden snakes are found absolutely all over the North American continent, and are plentiful in the continental United States.
They live in pretty much every environment you can think of, what are rarely found too far away from water.
They are highly active both night and day, good climbers, able swimmers and adaptable to all sorts of soil and cover conditions.
As their colloquial name suggests, there are commonly encountered in the garden because that is where they will usually find prey, be at rats and mice, slugs, larger insects, worms and anything else they think they can swallow especially when food is scarce.
So, no matter where you are, if you work and live outdoors you’ll want to prepare yourself for an encounter with this plentiful reptile.
How Likely are Garden Snakes to Bite?
Garden snakes are highly unlikely to bite, and generally only do so when agitated or handled roughly.
Many subspecies of garden snake have been bred for the pet market and most are reasonably docile.
When cornered or confronted, and especially when disturb from a resting site, they may coil and strike at the interloper, but when outmatched or more likely to bury or conceal their head and flail their tail at the attacker.
Like some other snakes, the garden snake is one that will readily void its bowels while punctuating it with a disgusting, musky secretion in an effort to ward off predators, including people.
Does Their Bite Hurt?
The bite of a garden snake can be painful, especially when envenomation occurs.
Compared to many other venomous snakes with large, prominent hypodermic fangs in the front of their mouths, garden snakes only have small, rear located fangs which may or may not pierce the skin of a human depending on the success of the bite. Even so, envenomation may not occur.
As mentioned above, the mild neurotoxic venom of the garden snake family is not much cause for concern, with only the odd hypersensitive reaction spelling trouble in most cases.
Expect some localized pain at the bite site, along with some bruising, itching and throbbing.
As always, anything more than this, or if you even suspect you were bitten by a different kind of venomous snake, seek medical attention immediately.
Are Garter Snakes Aggressive Toward People?
No. And in almost every case a garden snake will prefer to flee from a human being rather than stand and fight, although it is not out of the question that they could give a threat display when disturbed from a resting place, immediately after a meal or in any other circumstances where their escape could be hindered or is impossible.
Will They Bother Animals?
Generally no. Although garden snakes are highly active and successful predators, they will only target animals they have a high likelihood of bringing down and eating.
Dogs, cats and other pets have very little to fear from a garden snake unless they are quite young or very, very small.
Livestock similarly has nothing to fear from these reptiles except in the case of young chicks or the eggs laid by chickens or ducks: although they greatly prefer live prey, garden snakes are adaptable and will eat eggs if they are easy to get to.
Other than this, except for perhaps inadvertently causing a stampede or other accident among larger animals like cows and horses you don’t need to worry about these snakes hanging around on your property.
Should You Kill Garden Snakes?
No. Much of the time, there is no need, and any garden snake that you confront or even try to shoo away with a broom or stick will probably hit the road and not come back.
Furthermore, garden snakes play an important role in the food chain, both as predators and as prey.
For that reason, you generally don’t need to worry about killing them when they are found, but if there is one hanging around and is making a nuisance of itself, or is eating the eggs of your flock, you need not hesitate in taking it out.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.