January 28, 2021

Snake puts on a scary show for naturalists

HOLDEN – Last week Diana Collins and Terry Pierson were taking a walk on the Lakeshore Trail at Fields Pond Audubon Center. They stopped at a beautiful spot on the lakeshore where there are benches and a picnic table. They noticed a small snake, less than a foot long and about a half-inch thick, coiled up in the middle of the trail.

The little snake was behaving in a different way from any other snake they had ever seen. It was vibrating its tail and striking at them. They laughed that such a tiny snake would act so aggressively. Avid naturalists, they knew full well that no Maine snake was venomous.

Fearless, they decided they would test the mettle of the little snake. Terry Pierson picked up a stick and moved it close to the snake’s head. It struck at the stick. Next, Terry moved her foot close to the snake. It struck at her shoe. They laughed that such a small snake would think itself so powerful.

Then Terry had a scary thought. This must be a baby snake. What if Big Mama was near? They didn’t know what kind of snake it was; they had never seen one behave like this. Maybe they should report the snake to the naturalists in the Fields Pond Audubon Center.

When they described their snake experience, the species was recognized immediately. Milk snakes act just like that. Often they vibrate their tails in dry leaves or grass, sounding just like rattlesnakes, and send people into a panic. Instead of wiggling away, milk snakes sometimes advance toward the frightened person, striking at them. It’s quite a show. But the milk snake is harmless.

Its name comes from folklore – it is often found in barns, searching for mice, not milk. It catches and constricts mice, then eats them. Probably the milk snake’s rattlesnake imitation show has survival value when it is accosted by, say, a fox.

Other Maine snakes mostly zip away in the grass when seen by a person. Garter snakes, though, when found on the road, can’t get enough traction to zip away. Instead they coil up and strike, a very ineffectual defense against cars.

For information on Fields Pond Audubon Center, call 989-2591.

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