Fall is a busy time for animals. Some are migrating to warmer places. Others are growing heavy fur coats to stay warm during the colder temperatures ahead. Some are storing food to find later, while others are packing on the pounds by eating everything in sight.
I bet you can picture a certain animal for each one of these activities. Chances are you thought of birds migrating, deer or coyotes growing fur coats, squirrels storing nuts and groundhogs eating and eating and eating and eating. But what exactly does a snake do to get ready for winter?
Like other reptiles and amphibians, snakes are ectothermic, which is commonly known as cold-blooded. This means they do not generate their own body heat like we do. Their temperature is tied to the temperature of their environment. That’s why you commonly see snakes sunning on rocks or the trails. They must warm up their bodies before they can do metabolically strenuous activities like digestion. But what happens when it’s freezing outside? The sun just doesn’t cut it in the winter.
As the temperatures start to drop, snakes decide to stop eating. It doesn’t make sense for a snake to store up fat for the winter, because it won’t be warm enough to burn off the calories for warmth. Next, the snake finds a place cozy that is safe for a long rest. A snake’s overwintering site is called a hibernaculum. This is a place that needs to have the perfect temperature, where the inside stays above freezing. In southern states, a hibernaculum could be in a rotting log or wood pile, whereas in northern states snakes retreat further underground, just below the frost line.
Snake slumber party
Finding the perfect hibernaculum can be like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Finding one just right is hard to come by. Therefore, it is very common to see many snakes piling into the same perfect spot. Once one has been found, a site can be used year after year.
Having many snakes in the same area works in their favor come spring. Once winter is over, the snakes warm up and have the spring instinct to mate. It’s a pretty short trip to find their partner! In the spring, you may stumble upon a pile of snakes, which is referred to as a “mating ball.”
Snakes are important to the ecosystem. Their prey often makes up what humans like to call pests. Bigger snakes eat tons of rodents, while smaller snakes eat slugs. They keep their prey populations in check while also becoming food themselves for bigger predators like birds of prey.
Encourage snakes to go to work in your back yard and build a hibernaculum! Look up where the frost line is in your area. In Illinois it usually measures 10 inches to 20 inches below ground. Then dig a hole and loosely fill it with bark, rocks and sticks, to give the animals pockets to curl up. Adding in little pipes will give the snakes an easy entrance to their new, cozy hibernaculum. Finish by covering the hole back up!
Check out this video for the steps. You will notice in the video that you will be helping frogs too!
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