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Fox Snakes May Act Tough, But They Are Harmless

“How much do you know about snakes?” someone asked recently when calling Plum Creek Nature Center. Answering the phones at a nature center is great way to keep you on your toes. Questions can range from what business hours are to people wanting to book a campsite to “Help! I found this animal. What do I do now?”

The person who called to ask how much we knew about snakes had caught a snake near their barn. It was rattling its tail and hissing.

“Is this a rattlesnake? What should I do?” they asked. After asking a few more questions, I was able to sleuth it out. No, it wasn’t a rattlesnake, but a fox snake acting tough.

Where was this snake found?

This particular snake was found near a barn, which is typical for western fox snakes. These snakes prefer farm fields, open grasslands and prairies, and forest edges. In addition to western fox snakes, there are also eastern fox snakes. The eastern fox snakes prefer wetter, marsh areas. These snakes are more active during the day in spring and fall while the weather is cooler. During the summer they stay hidden during the heat of the day.

The western fox snakes and eastern fox snakes do not live in the same parts of the United States. Western fox snakes live mostly in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Eastern fox snakes live farther east, in parts of Michigan and Ohio.

What does this snake look like?

Fox snakes are longer snakes, measuring 3 feet to 5 feet long. They have tan bodies patterned with dark brown blotches. Their scales have some texture, and they are slightly bumpy or keeled. The underside is a cream color with scattered dark squares. Western fox snakes can have coppery orange heads with flat snouts. Young snakes have the same pattern as the adults, but are lighter in color with hues of gray.

How is the snake behaving?

Western fox snakes will put on a show in hopes of not getting eaten. When a predator gets too close, they will rattle their tails like a rattlesnake does. But if you look closely, there is not a rattle on the end of a western fox snake’s tail. However, because these snakes are usually found on the ground around dry grasses and leaves, the rattling motion hits the vegetation, which in turn makes a loud rattling sound.

Just like a dog will bark at something to make it back away, a snake will hiss. “Pleassssssse give me my ssssspace,” the snake is saying. Lastly, if a predator is still in pursuit, a snake has one more defense. It will release a musk, which is unpleasant to taste or smell. Fox snakes supposedly have musk that smells like a fox. This could also signal to predators that it is dealing with something bigger than a snake!

What now?

After reassuring the caller that what they caught was a fox snake and not a rattlesnake, they asked, “Well what do I do with it?” These kinds of questions are very common. What is its purpose, and why should I care for this snake?

First off, fox snakes are nonvenomous. They are constrictors that would rather squeeze their prey than bite. They really don’t want to take on giants. Unfortunately, because they put on a good act and mimic rattlesnakes, people kill them, thinking they will hurt us.

Secondly, these snakes are a strong links in the food chain. Western fox snakes eat mice, voles, eggs, birds and baby rabbits. Plus, bigger things like coyotes, hawks and owls eat them. So, my answer to what should I do with it was, “Release it and let it go to work! How lucky to find it near a barn. The fox snake will keep your mice population under control.”

I am happy to report the caller agreed. How great to have an animal that helps out on the farm!


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