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When is your namesake also your dinner? When you’re a Gophersnake! Named for their skills in digging burrows, the Gophersnake is a nonvenomous species of colubrid snake endemic to North America. They are carnivores that kill by constriction (see video) and are one of the most commonly seen snakes in North America. They consume gophers, ground squirrels, rats, mice, rabbits, and voles. Their pest-control services can be a great ally for farmers. And while they feed less frequently than warm-blooded predators, the mere presence of the snake can create a “landscape of fear” and deter some rodents from moving onto the farm. Gophersnakes are also an important food source for nesting raptors like hawks, eagles and owls.
Gophersnakes are often mistaken for Rattlesnakes, due to their similar patterns and defensive behaviors like rattling their tail and making a loud hissing sound. They are yellow, straw, tan or cream in color with brown or reddish blotches on the back and smaller dark markings on the sides. Gophersnakes are generally more slender than a Rattlesnake. Use a resource like iNaturalist to see what Gophersnakes and Rattlesnakes look like in your area.
Male Gophersnake courting a female, photo by Melissa Amarello (ASP)
Gophersnakes begin looking for a mate in the spring when they emerge from hibernation. After a 5-7 week gestation period, the female lays eggs. If resources are abundant, they may double clutch (lay two batches of eggs). Females lay 2-24 eggs per clutch, each about 2 inches wide. Excellent diggers, they can dig their own nests, but also lay eggs in pre-existing burrows, downed trees, compost, or loose dirt in moist places with stable temperatures. Mother Gophersnakes don’t stay with their eggs, but rely on nature to serve as an incubator. A good nest site is critical, and the female will return year after year once established. The eggs incubate for 60-75 days before hatching in late summer or early fall. Tiny hatchlings emerge the size of a pencil, but can grow to six feet long and will live into their 20s if skilled at finding food and evading predators and vehicles.
Phil and Karell Reader, owners of Luz Del Valle Farm
From Karell Reader, Luz Del Valle Farm, Aptos, CA
Snakes get a bad rap. It is true that many snake species are noted for their predatory ways, but honestly, they are not the evil, aggressive creatures that they are often made out to be. Snakes, for all their sleek, slithery ways are a friend to man.
I was not always a snake advocate. In fact, I was quite hostile to them in my youth. I would ride my horse up the valley from my ranch carrying my .22 rifle. If I found a rattlesnake sunbathing peacefully in the road, I would shoot it from my horse and take pleasure in eliminating what I regarded as a harmful creature.
My transformation occurred in college when I lived with Susie the Snake Lady.
My transformation occurred in college when I lived with Susie the Snake Lady in San Luis Obispo. Susie spent half the year going to college and half the year out on the road with a traveling circus. She was a sideshow performer with her large Python companion, Angel, and also a contortionist and magician’s assistant. Sue had a passion for snakes. At one time our townhouse housed two Gophersnakes, Bar P and Demon, a couple of Common Kingsnakes, Irving and Fred, as well as some cute little tarantulas, a newt, a couple of dogs and a chicken (which also performed in the traveling circus by pecking the keys on a piano).
My love and appreciation of snakes increased immensely when I lived with them and got to know their calm and gentle natures. However, I would never keep wild snakes captive and “domesticated” again. I love their wildness and even with the dangers in nature, I think they are happiest living free. Now, I watch over them in the wild and on my farm. It is a delight when I find them and I love to see my old snake friends when they come out in the spring, fat and healthy.
How to Be a Good Neighbor
- Trap for rodent pests when possible instead of using rodenticides. Rodenticides are lethal not only to the intended target, but to all their predators too. Snakes readily scavenge and if they eat rodents that have ingested rodenticides, they will also likely become ill and die, as will others who scavenge them.
- Don’t use bird netting or rodent glue traps. It is difficult to safely extract trapped animals and they often die before being found.
- Mow or till slowly to give animals time to get out of your way. Disc or plow to a minimum as it will destroy the burrows that they use to nest or shelter.
- Leave plenty of cover, perennial plants, brush piles, rock piles as habitat.
- If you want to keep a healthy Gophersnake population, you will need to tolerate a healthy population of insects and small mammals – they are important food for snakes and their prey.
- Drive slowly and remind others to go slowly and take care, especially when there are new hatchlings moving from their nests.
- Puddles and water sources on the ground are appreciated, as snakes are unable to get all the moisture they need from their food.
- Take great care to not disturb eggs in compost piles and other likely nest sites. From June to about August, eggs can be present.
- Only handle Gophersnakes when necessary for the snake’s safety. Gently encourage the snake with a branch into a clean 5-gallon bucket with a loose lid. Move them to the safer location (as close as possible to the capture site) and release promptly.
- Let visitors know that snakes are welcome on your property and should be left alone.
Gophersnake photo by K. Schneider
- Gophersnakes mimic Rattlesnakes to ward off predators. They will rise into an S-shaped body posture, rattle their tail and make a loud hissing sound. They can even flatten their heads into the triangular shape typical of a Rattlesnake.
- Gophersnakes shed (molt) their skin up to several times each year. While molting, the clear scale covering the eyes appears blue and impedes vision, so they hide in a familiar shelter to stay safe.
- Gophersnakes are homebodies. They return to spots where they have successfully hunted, sheltered, or found mates. They make their home in deserts, coastal dunes, grasslands, scrublands, forests, and the hedgerows and wild perimeters of farms. If you pay close attention to their unique color patterns, you can identify them year after year.
- Gophersnakes can go weeks without eating, but will grab a meal more often if given the chance.
More Snake Resources:
Advocates for Snake Preservation–www.snakes.ngo
Save the Snakes–www.savethesnakes.org
Thanks to Karell Reader of Luz Del Valle Farm and Melissa Amarello of Advocates for Snake Preservation for providing content for this issue.