DeKay's snake

As spring progresses, many of us will have our hands in the dirt in our 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. But there’s no reason to fear the snakes in your garden. Most are harmless and many of them 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.

Moving a board or an old pile of shingles, you might come across a DeKay’s Brownsnake, a mere 9–13-inch-long snake with a very small “home” range. In a year, this snake might move only 200 feet from your garden to your neighbor’s woodpile. Brownsnakes primarily eat earthworms, slugs, and snails, using their tiny, slender teeth to extract snails from their shells. Keeping this slug predator around could be beneficial to your hostas and other prized plants. 

eastern gartersnake

Eastern Gartersnakes are ubiquitous in Illinois. You may find them under debris in the yard or hunting toads in the garden. While this larger (16–26 inches) snake will eat worms and snails, it often munches on larval and adult toads, frogs, and salamanders. Remarkably, Gartersnakes can tolerate poisons in the skin of these animals. Two to four suburban backyards could be home to 10–20 Gartersnakes, or more if there is water nearby. A Gartersnake basking on your stone wall will add some color and pattern to your garden, and, because no two snakes are exactly alike, the more the better!  

Gray Ratsnake

Gray Ratsnakes are much more conspicuous in their environment, being a fairly large snake (42–72 inches) and tending to 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 and, thus, an intrepid Ratsnake may follow a mouse into your house. 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.

Are you lucky enough to share your space with any of these gentle snakes? 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. A nudge from the handle of your hoe, rather than a chop, will also motivate a snake to move out of your path. If you allow these three species to share your garden space, I am almost certain good karma will follow, and I guarantee the snakes will thank you! 

I am eager to learn about your efforts to have a peaceful coexistence with our reptilian friends. Contact me at jmokeefe@illinois.edu.

Extension Photos:
Top: DeKay’s Brownsnake by JG Palis
Top right: Eastern Gartersnake by JG Palis
Bottom right: Gray Ratsnake by JG Palis

MEET THE AUTHOR 
Joy O’Keefe is an assistant professor and wildlife Extension specialist at the University of Illinois. Dr. O'Keefe’s research primarily focuses on ways to facilitate the coexistence of bats and humans in human-altered landscapes.