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

The Water Snake

Teacher's Story

dropcap image VERY boy that goes fishing, knows the snake found commonly about mill-dams and wharves or on rocks and bushes near the water. The teacher will have accomplished a great work, if these boys are made to realize that this snake is a more interesting creature for study, than as an object to pelt with stones.

The water snake is a dingy brown in color, with crossbands of brownish or reddish brown which spread out into blotches at the side. Its color is very protective as it lies on stones or logs in its favorite attitude of sunning itself. It is very local in its habits, and generally has a favorite place for basking and returns to it year after year on sunny days.

This snake lives mostly upon frogs and salamanders and fish; however, it preys usually upon fish of small value, so it is of little economic importance. It catches its victims by chasing, and seizing them in its jaws.

It has a very keen sense of smell and probably traces its prey in this manner, something as a hound follows a fox. It is an expert swimmer, usually lifting the head a few inches above the water when swimming, although it is able to dive and remain below the water for a short time. The water snake is a bluffer, and, when cornered, it flattens itself and strikes fiercely. But its teeth contain no poison and it can inflict only slight and harmless wounds. When acting as if it would "rather fight than eat," if given a slight chance to escape, it will flee to the water like a "streak of greased lightning," as any boy will assure you.


The water snake.

The water snake attains a length of about four feet. The young do not hatch from eggs, but are born alive in August and September; they differ much in appearance from their parents as they are pale gray in color, with jet-black cross-bands.

Lesson LI

The Water Snake

Leading thought—The water snake haunts the banks of streams because its food consists of creatures that live in and about water.

Method—If water snakes are found in the locality, encourage the boys to capture one without harming it, and bring it to school for observation. However, as the water snake is very local in its habits, and haunts the same place year after year, it will be better nature-study to get the children to observe it in its native surroundings.


1. Where is the water snake found? How large is the largest one you ever saw?

2. Why does the water snake live near water? What is its food? How does it catch its prey?

3. Describe how the water snake swims. How far does its head project above the water when swimming? How long can it stay completely beneath the water?

4. Describe the markings and colors of the water snake. How do these colors protect it from observation? How do the young look?

5. Does each water snake have a favorite place for sunning itself?

6. Where do the water snakes spend the winter?

May 12, 1858.

      Found a large water adder by the edge of Farmer's large mudhole, which abounds with tadpoles and frogs, on which it was probably feeding. It was sunning on the bank and would face me and dart its head toward me when I tried to drive it from the water. It is barred above, but indistinctly when out of the water, so that it appears almost uniformly dark brown, but in the water, broad, reddish brown bars are seen, very distinctly alternating with very dark-brown ones. The head was very flat and suddenly broader than the neck behind. Beneath, it was whitish and reddish flesh-color. It was about two inches in diameter at the thickest part. The inside of its mouth and throat was pink. They are the biggest and most formidable-looking snakes that we have. It was awful to see it wind along the bottom of the ditch at last, raising wreaths of mud amid the tadpoles, to which it must be a very sea-serpent. I afterward saw another, running under Sam Barrett' s grist-mill, the same afternoon. He said that he saw a water-snake, which he distinguished from a black snake, in an apple tree near by, last year, with a young robin in its mouth, having taken it from the nest. There was a cleft or fork in the tree which enabled it to ascend.

—Thoreau's Journal.      

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