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home : columns : columns June 24, 2016

6/4/2013 2:11:00 PM
Sisters Country snakes
Our local racer, one of hundreds of species of colubrids slithering about the US of A. photo provided
+ click to enlarge
Our local racer, one of hundreds of species of colubrids slithering about the US of A. photo provided

By Jim Anderson

In my good friend Al St. John's wonderful field guide, "Reptiles of the Northwest," there are seven snakes you can stumble over - or scare the pants off you - in the Sisters Country, among them:

• Rubber boa - harmless to humans;

• Racer - (above right) - harmless to humans;

• Striped whipsnake - harmless to humans;

• Gopher snake - harmless to humans;

• Garter snake - harmless to humans;

• Night snake - venomous, but harmless to humans;

• Western rattlesnake - venomous, sometimes dangerous to humans.

The "harmless to humans" depends on the human, not the snake. There are some people I have met over the years that cannot/will not take the time to consider the status of a snake and will bolt - sometimes doing considerable harm to their own body - in an attempt to get as far away from the reptile as fast as they possibly can.

There are a few other snakes in Al's book that he'd love to find here, so if you have an encounter with a snake that allows you time to take a photo, please send it to me. I'll send it on to Al and he may shout, "Hooray! At last!"

If, on the other hand, said snake spooked your horse and bailed you off into the brush, or you leaped off the horse in an attempt to climb the nearest tree when you saw the snake, forget it.

Snakes do cause some humans a lot of problems. Parents often go berserk when they see one of their children approaching a snake, curious as to what it is.

In the case of our rattlesnake, that's excusable and sometimes necessary. But most of the time it's overdone.

That said, I can recall vividly the day my oldest son, Dean, caught his first gopher snake. He came stumbling back to the old Ford van we camped in, laughing, crying and shouting, "I got him dad, and he bites, too!"

Let me share a few details about Kris's beautiful find, pictured here. To begin with, it delights in eating lizards - number one on their diet. Small rodents, baby rodents, small ground birds will be crushed and swallowed next - in that order.

Scientifically, racers belong to that enormous group of snakes known as colubrids. In Wickipedia there's this statement: "This family has classically been a garbage bin taxon for snakes that do not fit elsewhere."

So much for Carl Linnaeus and his attempts to organize the scientific classification of animals.

With over 304 genera and 1,938 species, Colubridae is the largest snake family in the world, including about two-thirds of all current snake species, and found on every continent on our lovely planet Earth - except Antarctica. They all crush their prey to kill them, as their scientific name implies, "Coluber (Latin for snake) constrictor."

Racers are curious and posses excellent vision. They are sometimes seen raising their head high above the bunchgrass they're gliding through to view what is around them. Aptly named, racers are very fast and typically flee from a potential predator. However, once cornered, they put up a vigorous fight, biting hard and often. If you insist on picking one up, be prepared; they will writhe, defecate and release a foul smelling musk from their cloaca (hind-end), just like garter snakes. They'll even shake their tails among dry leaves, sounding convincingly like rattlesnakes.

Some people know our racer as the "yellow-bellied racer." In Utah, they're known a the "Mormon racer"; around Kansas and south to Texas they have the delightful name of the "buttermilk racer," and in the Northwest they're black -and, guess what? - they're called the "black racer."

Ohio has even given the northern black racer the distinction of being the official state reptile. As far as I know, Oregon does not have an "official snake," so get busy and nominate one from Sisters Country.

Whatever you do, please give our snakes a break, go around and ignore them if possible. Like all our native flora and fauna, they fit into the ecological picture and help to maintain the integrity of the land.

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