No, no, not me but my newly hatched Carolina Wrens in the Williamsburg bird bottle. I was edging the borders near the garden shed when I heard the adult wrens raising a commotion. I just figured old Jack, our cat, must be sunning near the daylilies. I kept the shovel moving along the edge. But after a few minutes I turned and glanced over my shoulder, following the escalating noise. What I saw was a shocker. To my horror a 3′ snake was hanging from the shingles of the shed roof with his head at the nest entrance. The adult Carolina wrens were in turmoil with other birds joining in the pandemonium.
Dropping my shovel and running, I reached up and knocked the snake from the roof. It tried to scurry away but I stopped it. It turned direction and tried to escape over the grass but I stopped it again. It then curled into a vent of the shed, vibrating its tail in the dead leaves like a rattler to frighten me. I was not intimidated. You see…. I like snakes.
I was wearing garden gloves so I gently reached down and captured the snake behind the head and supporting its body, I picked it up. I was holding an adolescent Eastern Rat Snake (Scotophis alleghaniensis) that was as terrified of me as the birds were of it. As adults, these snakes are solid black with cream colored bellies but the young are hatched with a distinct black and gray pattern along the back. My snake’s pattern was still visible beneath the black. Many people come across the juveniles with their clear markings and mistakenly believe they found a copperhead.
Rat snakes are plentiful in Virginia and their numbers seem to be growing due to our fragmented forests. Snakes prefer the edge of woods to be able to sun themselves. Their average adult size is about 6′ but they can grow one or two feet longer. They are non-venomous and usually quite docile. Believe it or not, young ones like mine can make good pets (if you want to stash a supply of dead mice in the freezer or watch them constrict live mice or lizards). They will eat a wide variety of animals from rats (duh!), mice, lizards, moles, rabbits, squirrels and…. birds. One of their easiest prey is in the bird nest, either eggs or baby birds, for this is the snake well-known for climbing. If you ever see a dark snake in a tree or in a bird house, it’s probably the rat snake. Last summer, one scaled the smooth side of my neighbor’s garage refrigerator and dined on her baby birds in a nest. Unfortunately, that was its last meal.
After letting mister gardener photograph the snake (he used zoom so he wouldn’t have to come too close), I walked it about a half mile down the road, released it and watched it slither away and find shelter beneath a downed tree. “Don’t come back,” I warned. “I know you must eat but my little wrens can’t be on your menu.” Returning home, I watched the traumatized wrens fuss around the nest for over two hours, checking every shingle for a possible hidden predator. Eventually they resumed feeding their young and resumed singing 24 hours later.
Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester