Garden Snakes: Unexpected Wildlife Encounters

Rat Snakes in a birdhouse

Whether you love them or fear them or a little bit of both, snakes are often found making their home in residential gardens, even in urban areas. I was surprised by that several years ago when I first started to find garden snakes on my property.

Growing up in the country, snakes were a fact of life. Me and my siblings were always told to “watch for snakes” when we went out to play in the summer. At a young age, we were taught the visual signs of a venomous snake: the triangular heads with narrow necks versus the long and slender heads of non-venomous snakes. We knew how to spot a copperhead, listen for a rattlesnake, and give the edges of our ponds where cottonmouths hung out a wide berth when heading off to explore the woods.

Our grandparents, who lived next to us, provided a tidbit of wisdom to help us detect when snakes were around and that was to look for “snake doctors.” That’s what they called dragonflies, which I later learned was part of an old Southern folklore belief that dragonflies followed snakes around and stitched up their injuries, even injuries that left the snake in pieces. So if we saw a snake doctor flying around, they were certain that a snake was surely nearby. 

garter snakes like to sun on the potting bench.
Thamnophis proximus, commonly known as the western ribbon snake, is a species of garter snake we've seen in the garden on more than one occasion. This one had made itself comfy on the warm wooden slats of my potting bench in early spring.

Snakes in Mythology and Folklore

Snakes have a long and complex history, often associated with fear and vilification. Throughout many cultures and mythologies, snakes have been symbols of evil, temptation, and danger. We can trace this negative perception back to ancient times, where snakes were often associated with chaos, deceit, and the underworld. In many religious texts, snakes are depicted as manipulative creatures that lead humans astray.

Over the centuries, the fear of venomous snakes has been ingrained in human consciousness.  The physical characteristics of snakes – their elongated bodies and lack of legs can also be unnerving. Their slithering movements and ability to blend into their surroundings add to their aura of stealth and danger.

Snakes crawl across the garden fence
I spotted this rat snake slithering across the garden fence this past spring headed for a bird house. They're not venomous or harmful to humans but we do have to take extra precautions to keep them out of the birdhouses.

Reptiles and Frogs: Indicators of a Vibrant Garden Habitat

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you don’t have to be in the country to encounter snakes. In a backyard garden, you never know what you’re going to see. That is especially true when you’ve cultivated a healthy habitat for wildlife.

Fostering a balanced ecosystem is an important goal for my garden. When that is accomplished, it’s natural to witness a diversity of creatures – some unexpected – even in suburbia.

Toads and frogs, which are considered an indicator species, were the first creatures to teach me this lesson. I’ll never forget the first time a bullfrog showed up in our tiny frog pond. Another sight I never thought I’d see in our suburban back yard.

Reptiles also love the garden. We have a growing population of whiptail and skink lizards, and yes, we also have the occasional snake or two. 

Frog pond with toad peeking out
The garden has a healthy population of toads and other frogs which eat lots of pest insects but also sometimes serve as a meal for snakes and birds.

Snakes in the Garden

In my garden, I find snakes basking in the sun on my potting bench, hanging out in shrubs, slithering along the fence, hunting frogs near the small frog pond, seeking out birdhouses, and lying in wait for rodents near the compost bin. 

I’ve also found baby snakes in piles of straw mulch and discovered young snakes pecked to death by the resident garden birds. In the many years we’ve had a garden and discovered snakes in it, none have been venomous, however, and so for the most part we’ve left them alone.

Snake peeking out of a birdhouse
This birdhouse was unoccupied back in 2019 but had some old nesting material that this snake curled up in one evening as the sun was setting on the garden.

An Intriguing Encounter with a Hognose Snake

One time that we did relocate a non-venomous snake rather than leaving it alone was when we had an Eastern hognose snake, sometimes called a puff adder. It was lying in the walkway between two raised beds that were overgrown with cilantro plants. The plants had formed a tunnel that provided the perfect opportunity for the snake to hide and pick off toads.  

The puff adder is not aggressive or venomous, but it was quite large and when approached, it raised up, spread its face out like a cobra, and hissed very loudly. Very unnerving because at the time, we didn’t know what kind of snake it was. Even growing up in the country, I had never encountered one and so we kept a safe distance until we could frantically Google search its details and see if it was venomous.

It continued to make quite the fuss with its cobra-like disguise and its loud hissing, but when that didn’t work to deter us and we got closer, it proceeded to vomit up a partially digested toad, fall  onto its back with its belly exposed, and then go completely still and lifeless. Basically, it played dead. We henceforth referred to it as the drama queen of the garden. Because it was so large and I felt sorry for the toads, we loaded it up in an ice chest and rolled it to the woods to relocate.

A puff adder snakes play dead when threatened
The puff adder playing dead on its belly in an ice chest we used to relocate it to the woods in 2017.

Exploring the Role of Snakes in Garden Biodiversity

After that incident, and over the years, I have grown more accustomed to and welcoming of snakes in the garden. While we are conditioned to fear all snakes, non-venomous garden snakes can be a welcoming sight in the garden. I have received vehement disagreement about that on social media!  🙂

Like other reptiles (and also amphibians), snakes can be a sign of a healthy and robust ecosystem. I interpret snakes in the garden to mean that the yard and garden has enough diversity to sustain a predator.

Certain snakes which are frequently seen in gardens and yards may be referred to as “garden snakes.” In my location these can include king snakes, rat snakes, rough green snakes, various garter snakes, and eastern hognoses to name a few. I even once discovered an Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer (Coluber constrictor ssp. flaviventris) in the garden draped inside a large rue plant

None of these present any danger to humans, though they can deliver a painful bite if provoked. They really just want to be left alone. Snakes are part of the bigger picture of a natural ecosystem, and in my opinion can be quite beautiful.

Coluber constrictor snake
Even if you're not a snake person, you have to admit, this Coluber constrictor is quite beautiful. My dog let me know this was hiding out in the rue plant back in the summer of 2020.

Nature's Heartbreak: The Double-Snake Incident

Sometimes observing nature can be incredibly heartbreaking, however. Over the past several years, a lot of woods and wild areas in my region have been deforested to make way for new housing developments and recreation. Whether that’s the culprit or the garden is just becoming more ecologically balanced, we’ve seen a slight uptick in the snake population in our garden since then.

In the spring of 2022, not one but two large rat snakes raided a nesting box that had bluebird eggs in it. We have seen a snake go into an empty birdhouse before, but I have never seen anything like what I saw that day.

I stepped outside to check on the garden and I immediately heard the sounds of birds in distress. I knew there was a snake in the garden. When a snake is around, birds of all kinds show up en mass. They work together taking turns dive bombing and pecking the snake’s tail, and screeching at it until they drive it away.

This time it was too late. One of the largest snakes I’ve ever seen was slithering into a birdhouse that I knew contained bluebird eggs. I grabbed a large stick and tried to scare it out, but it didn’t work.

Bluebird fighting off snakes
An Eastern bluebird attacking the two rat snakes that raided the nesting box in April of 2022. As they tried to emerge, the bird attempted to scare them off.

Battle of the Birds

I couldn’t believe what I saw next! Another large rat snake arrived from the other side of the fence and also entered the nesting box. Two HUGE snakes in one tiny bluebird house! Eventually each snake peaked its head out intending to exit.

This entire time, the blue birds were trying to fight back and were aided by other birds that arrived – a male cardinal, a small yellow finch, a large brown bird, and more.

Each of these birds took turns dive-bombing the snakes as they left, and the smaller rat snake was chased up into a tree and out of our yard. Not one, but two large western rat snakes raiding the same nesting box was quite unnerving. 

Once the snakes left the garden, the birds grew silent. Sadly, the bluebird parents left the garden in defeat. But another bluebird pair (or perhaps that same couple) came back later in the season and successfully raised a healthy clutch of babies. The circle of life continued.

Protecting Nesting Boxes from Snakes

After the double-snake incident, we installed snake baffles, new nesting boxes with cages, and elevated them higher off the fence.

The following year, another large rat snake showed up and was going for the same nesting box. With all the new fortifications and my efforts to chase it away with a large stick, it left without its intended meal.

a rat snake on a fence
In the spring of 2023, this snake was deterred by the snake baffle we installed after the double-snake incident of 2022.

Creating a Thriving Ecosystem: Lessons from Garden Visitors

My little wild garden offers a front-row seat to nature’s theater. For me, it’s these unexpected encounters with creatures like snakes that makes gardening a more rich experience and reinforces the concepts of a balanced ecosystem. 

I do what I can to support and protect our bird population and the other garden critters. But the garden has taught me that even wildlife that can feel scary like snakes are also part of the interconnected web of life. By fostering a haven for wildlife, I am gaining a deeper understanding of the delicate balance of nature.

Do you observe and appreciate snakes in your garden or run for the hills when you spot one? Also, I am wondering if anyone else was taught by elder family members that snake doctors (dragonflies) were nature’s snake detectors. Add your thoughts and stories in the comment section below.  

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Cultivating Nature's Wisdom

I’m a nature photographer and gardener sharing how I created an ecological garden in a small suburban backyard. I also share a few tips for growing and using herbs to craft your own homegrown spice blends.

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