DeKay's Brownsnake
DeKay's Brownsnakes are 9 to 13 inches in length and don't travel far from their home. Extension photo by J.G. Palis.

URBANA, Ill. – As spring progresses, many will have their hands in the dirt of their backyards, pulling out weeds and breaking up soil to prepare for the ultimate tomato patch. Coming across a snake in the grass or in the dirt may startle even the bravest person and could result in a failed garden for the fainthearted gardener.

There’s no reason to fear the snakes in your garden, says Joy O’Keefe, University of Illinois Extension wildlife specialist. "Most are harmless, and many are providing valuable ecosystem services, eating the pests you loathe even more than the snakes."

Three snakes commonly found in gardens across most of Illinois are, from smallest to largest, the DeKay’s Brownsnake, Eastern Gartersnake, and Gray Ratsnake.

The DeKay’s Brownsnake is only 9 to 13 inches long, with a very small home range. Brownsnakes primarily eat earthworms, slugs, and snails, using their tiny, slender teeth to extract snails from their shells. They often hide in woodpiles. 

"Keeping this slug predator around could be beneficial to your hostas and other prized plants," O'Keefe says. 

Eastern Gartersnakes are ubiquitous in Illinois. While this larger (16 to 26 inches) snake will eat worms and snails, it often munches on larval and adult toads, frogs, and salamanders and lives under debris in yards.

eastern gartersnake
Eastern Gartersnakes often live under debris in yards. Extension photo by J. G. Palis.

"Remarkably, Gartersnakes can tolerate poisons in the skin of these animals," O'Keefe says. "Two to four suburban backyards could be home to 10 to 20 Gartersnakes, more if there is water nearby.

At 42 to 72 inches in length, Gray Ratsnakes are much more conspicuous in their environment and often climb trees and rocks. Young snakes are blotched until they reach about 3 feet in length, at which point their pattern fades and they have a gray or black appearance.

"Ratsnakes can help control rodent populations; thus, an intrepid Ratsnake may follow a mouse into your house," O'Keefe says. One Ratsnake could range across an entire neighborhood, but the amount of area they cover will depend on food availability.  

"A Ratsnake may appear menacing, even vibrating its tail in leaf litter when disturbed, but it is completely harmless," O'Keefe says. "If they are in your way, you may safely move any of them without fear of being injured. These species rarely attempt to bite humans, none are venomous, and they cannot penetrate garden gloves with their teeth."

O'Keefe’s research primarily focuses on ways to facilitate the coexistence of bats and humans in human-altered landscapes. For more information on snakes, contact O'Keefe at jmokeefe@illinois.edu. 

SOURCE: Joy O’Keefe, University of Illinois Extension Wildlife Specialist

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