Snakes alive

Slithering serpents can be good for keeping rodents at bay

The terrestrial garter snake is perhaps the most frequently seen snake in the Grand Valley and is often called a “garden snake.” Garter snakes are harmless and are also beneficial. The snakes eat the insects, including grasshoppers, that will eat your garden plants. Garter snakes will only bite if you try to pick them up and even then, the bite is more like a paper cut.

A frightened bull snake performs a threat display to try to scare away a potential predator.

A young rat snake warms itself on a rock. Rat snakes like to hang out near corn, not because they eat the plant but because they eat the rodents that eat corn.

A midget faded rattlesnake is well camouflaged against the desert ground and is one of two venomous snakes in the area.


Rattlesnake Bites

There is a saying that your risk of snakebite increases with the “T” factors: tequila, testosterone, teasing, etc. That’s because a significant proportion of rattlesnake bites are sustained by young men who get drunk and decide it’s a good idea to tease or pick up a snake.

Rattlesnakes do not want to bite you. They usually only bite when stepped on or grabbed. If you can avoid getting drunk and teasing snakes, you have already substantially reduced your risk of snakebite. Beyond that, the best advice is to be aware of your surroundings.

If you are in rattlesnake country, watch where you are putting your hands and feet. Rattlesnakes like to hide from their predators and are well camouflaged. Don’t step any place you can’t see clearly. Don’t reach into rock crevices.

Keep your ears open and listen for a warning rattle — don’t wear headphones. Wear study boots or shoes that protect your feet, so if you do step in the wrong place, a bite won’t break the skin.

If your first glance at the photos on this page caused an involuntary shudder, you are not alone.

Fear of snakes might be the most common phobia, according to psychologists. Even people who are not actually terrified of snakes generally do not get a “warm fuzzy feeling” upon spying one.

Snakes have long been cast as the villain in mythology and folklore, but it is time to change our attitude toward snakes. The vast majority that you may encounter in our area are not only harmless, they’re likely beneficial to you.

In the Grand Valley, the three snakes you are most likely to see are the terrestrial garter snake, the bull snake and the Great Plains rat snake. None of these snakes is venomous or dangerous to humans, and all three of them can benefit your backyard by reducing pests at no cost or inconvenience to you.

The terrestrial garter snake, which many people call by its nickname “garden snake,” is one of many species of garter snakes in North America. This is the snake most commonly seen in the suburbs, but they live in a variety of habitats and even have been found in the alpine tundra at 13,000 feet.

Why do you want a garter snake in your garden? Because they eat insects, including grasshoppers, as well as slugs. Really large garter snakes will eat mice. If you like your lettuce without holes and your cherry tomatoes un-nibbled, a garter snake is nice to have around.

Garter snakes rarely bite, and then only if you try to pick them up. Their teeth are tiny and razor sharp, and I know from firsthand experience their bite is no worse than a paper cut. A garter snake’s first line of defense when snatched up by a predator or curious human is to release a foul smelling musk substance all over the offender’s hands. It stinks, but it washes off easily.

Our other common snake, the Great Plains rat snake, is also known as a corn snake, because it often hangs around places where grains such as corn are stored. It doesn’t eat corn. It eats the mice and rats that eat corn.

Rat snakes are frequently found in barns and sheds where rodents hang out. If you find one in your shed, count yourself lucky and let the snake go on its merry way. With a rat snake around, you’ll have fewer rodents raiding your birdseed stores, making nests in your stored camping gear or potentially exposing you to hantavirus.

Like the rat snake, the bull snake, also known as a gopher snake, is an effective rodent killer.

Bull snakes are often mistaken for rattlesnakes and killed because, when threatened, they mimic the posture of a rattlesnake to scare off predators. Frightened bull snakes may even vibrate their tails against the ground to make a rattle-like sound.

There are only two venomous snakes in our area, the prairie rattlesnake and the midget faded rattlesnake, and “sightings of these snakes are rare,” according to Dan Neubaum, a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. They are usually seen on rocky outcrops, mesa tops and the scree slopes of canyon country, not in backyards. These snakes are generally shy and just want to be left alone. That’s why they have a rattle to warn people and other threats to “please go away.”

If you are interested in learning more about our local reptiles, check out Colorado Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (, which shares information and runs “herping” field trips.

Herping is the reptile and amphibian equivalent of birding. The website documents Kevin Urbanek’s adventures herping in Colorado with his young son and is the source of the wonderful photos that accompany this article.

Maybe learning about the benefits of backyard snakes hasn’t turned you into a snake lover. But at the very least, I hope it has convinced you to live and let snakes live, even when you find them in your yard. They are good additions to the garden.


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