Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Reptiles by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Reptiles by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Garter, or Garden, Snake

Teacher's Story

A chipmunk, or a sudden-whirring quail,

Is startled by my step as on I fare.

A gartersnake across the dusty

Glances and—is not there.


dropcap image F snakes can be easily tamed, and are ready to meet friendly advances half way. A handsome yellow-striped, black garter lived for four years beneath our piazza and was very friendly and unafraid of the family. The children of the campus made it frequent visits, and never seemed to be weary of watching it; but the birds objected to it very much, although it never attempted to reach their nests in the vine above. The garter snakes are the most common of all, in our Northeastern States. They vary much in color; the ground color may be olive, brown or black, and down the center of the back is usually a yellow, green or whitish stripe, usually bordered by a darker band of ground-color. On each side is a similar stripe, but not so brightly colored; sometimes the middle stripe, and sometimes the side stripes are broken into spots or absent; the lower side is greenish white or yellow. When fully grown this snake is about three feet in length.

The garters are likely to congregate in numbers in places favorable for hibernation, like rocky ledges or stony side-hills. Here each snake finds a safe crevice, or makes a burrow which sometimes extends a yard or more under ground. During the warm days of Indian summer, these winter hermits crawl out in the middle of the day and sun themselves, retiring again to their hermitages when the air grows chilly toward night; and when the cold weather arrives, they go to sleep and do not awaken until the first warm days of spring; then, if the sun shines hot, they crawl out and bask in its welcome rays.

After the warm weather comes, the snakes scatter to other localities more favorable for finding food, and thus these hibernating places are deserted during the summer. The banks of streams, and the edges of woods are places which furnish snakes their food, which consists of earthworms, insects, toads, salamanders, frogs, etc. The young are born late in July and are about six inches long at birth; one mother may have in her brood from eleven to fifty snakelings; she stays with them during the fall to protect them, and there are many stories about the way the young ones run down the mother's throat in case of attack; but, as yet, no scientist has seen this act, or placed it on record. The little snakes shift for their own food, catching small toads, earthworms and insects. If it finds food in plenty, the garter snake will mature in one year. Hawks, crows, skunks, weasels and other predacious animals seem to find the garter snake attractive food.


Garter snakes.

Lesson XLIX

The Garter, or Garden, Snake

Leading thought—The garter snake is a common and harmless little creature and has many interesting habits which are worth studying.

Method—A garter snake may be captured and placed in a box with a glass cover and thus studied in detail in the schoolroom, but the lesson should begin with observations made by the children on the snakes in their native haunts.


1. What are the colors and markings of your garter snake? Do the stripes extend along the head as well as the body? How long is it?

2. Describe its eyes, its ears, its nostrils and its mouth.

3. If you disturb it how does it act? Why does it thrust its tongue out? What shape is its tongue?

4. In what position is the snake when it rests? Can you see how it moves? Look upon the lower side. Can you see the little plates extending crosswise? Do you think it moves by moving these plates? Let it crawl across your hand, and see if you can tell how it moves.

5. What does the garter snake eat? Did you ever see one swallow a toad? A frog? Did it take it head first or tail first?

6. Where does the garter spend the winter? How early does it appear in the spring?

7. At what time of year do you see the young snakes? Do the young ones run down the throat of the mother for safety when attacked? Does the mother snake defend her young?

8. What enemies has the garter snake?

"No life in earth or air or sky;

The sunbeams, broken silently,

On the bared rocks around me lie,—

Cold rocks with half-warmed lichens scarred,

And scales of moss; and scarce a yard

Away, one long strip, yellow-barred.

Lost in a cleft! 'Tis but a stride

To reach it, thrust its roots aside,

And lift it on thy stick astride!

Yet stay! That moment is thy grace!

For round thee, thrilling air and space,

A chattering terror fills the place!

A sound as of dry bones that stir,

In the dead valley! By yon fir

The locust stops its noon-day whir!

The wild bird hears; smote with the sound.

As if by bullet brought to ground

On broken wing, dips, wheeling round!

The hare, transfixed, with trembling lip,

Halts breathless, on pulsating hip,

And palsied tread, and heels that slip.

Enough, old friend!—'tis thou. Forget

My heedless foot, nor longer fret

The peace with thy grim castanet!"

—from "Crotalus" (The Rattlesnake), Bret Harte.

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