Posts filed under ‘snakes’

Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern Garter SnakeCommon Name(s): Eastern Garter Snake
Latin Name: Thamnophis sirtalis

Size: 47 to 137 cm (18 to 54 in)
Habitat: Nearly all natural habitats in Western New York, and occasionally vacant urban or suburban construction sites.

Eats: Earthworms and smaller amphibians, though they can eat a full grown toads, without effect from their toxic secretions. They will also eat leeches, crayfish, slugs, smaller fish or snakes, and, in the case of larger individuals, occasionally nesting birds or rodents.
Is Eaten By: Bullfrogs, various birds, Snapping Turtles, larger fish and snakes, and numerous mammals, both wild and domestic.

Cool facts:

  • Eastern Garter Snakes are sometimes difficult to identify, as they have a very high degree of color variation. Their main coloration can be black, brown, gray, or olive, and the three stripes on its side may be yellow, brown, bluish, or white. There may also be one stripe running down its midsection and two more along its lower sides, but all stripes may be faint to absent. Checkered patterns are also common as are snakes found with all black scales save for some white on their chins.
  • While these snakes do hibernate from November to late March, they also may emerge from time to time to bask in the sun during warms spells. Some populations may travel great distances to migrate from their winter dens to their summer feeding grounds, while others simply stay put.
  • Garter snakes have few natural defenses, and their primary tool is escape. Their stripes make them particularly difficult to keep track of in underbrush or grass, and they can move remarkably quickly to avoid the clutches of predators.
  • The second line of defense is a malodorous anal musk, which it deploys and smears on its would-be captor.
  • Unlike most snakes (and most reptiles, for that matter) the Female Eastern Garter Snake gives birth to live young who linger around her for the first few days of their lives. Apart from this proximity, however, there is no evidence of any parental care provided to the newborns.
  • Garter Snakes can absorb scents on the air with their tongue, and then draw these to a powerful olfactory organ called the vomeronasal organ, located on the roof of their mouth.
  • Garter Snake Using Vomeronasal Organ

  • Males are very competitive for mates, sometimes forming a writhing ball around a female. At this time, males will occasionally release feminine odors to confuse the other suitors.
  • Despite the fact that this is a common and highly adaptable species—in fact, because of it—ecologists often watch their populations carefully. If the population is suffering, it is a very bad sign for environmental health.

Tips for Walk Leaders:

  • Garter Snake’s camouflage is variable and effective, so don’t think you can just spot one with keen eyes. Be patient and quiet, and use your periphery to spot movement rather than color.
  • Though some snakes will try to bite humans, they acclimate to human contact remarkably quickly.  Despite the presense of a slight toxin on the teeth of these snakes that can sedate small mammals , it is extremely rare for humans to have more than a slightly irritated response to the toxin. The Eastern Garter Snake is truly a harmless snake. Therefore, if you are lucky enough to find one, don’t have any qualms about trying to catch it or allowing small children to hold it: unless you’re afraid of a little bite. Whenever handling wildlife, show care and respect! Don’t harm animals in the act of trying to appreciate them!
  • For any who do feel brave enough to try to tame a Garter, remember that their second line of defense is a rather foul-smelling anal musk. Keep this in your calculation when you decide to hold the snake or give it to another.
  • Garter snakes enjoy hiding under large stones near small streams. These rocks can also be interesting places to see crayfish, salamanders, and decomposers at work. Take care, though; other snakes like these spots as well, and not all are as harmless as the Eastern Garter.

Photo Credits:

(1) Hiss by Darel Heitkamp
(2) Garter Snake With Tongue Out by Jennifer Schlick
(3) Its about Eye Contact! by Tom LeBlanc
(4) Garter Snake by Jennifer Schlick


(1) Hiss! by Jeremy Martin

Learn More:

Posted by Jim Middleton


March 14, 2009 at 6:23 am

The Animals of Western New York

Welcome to this site dedicated to learning about the animals of our region!



Contributors to this blog include the naturalists at the

Audubon Center & Sanctuary
Jamestown Audubon Society, Inc.
1600 Riverside Road
Jamestown, NY 14701
Phone: 716.569.2345

  • Jennifer Schlick,
    Program Director
  • Jeff Tome, Senior Naturalist for Programs and Exhibits
  • Sarah Hatfield, Teacher/Naturalist, Animal Care Specialist
  • Hollyann Leach, Teacher/Naturalist


Beaver Meadow Audubon Center
Buffalo Audubon Society, Inc.
1610 Welch Road
North Java, NY 14113
Phone: 800.377.1520

  • Paul Fehringer, Senior Naturalist


These guest naturalists:

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