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Snakes

Snakes are long, legless reptiles that are covered in overlapping scales. They have no external ears and have permanently fused transparent eyelids called brille. They are carnivorous and eat rodents, insects and worms. Some eat birds and eggs; others prefer fish or crayfish. Although all snakes have teeth and will bite if provoked, most local species are docile. All Winnebago County snakes are members of the Colubridae family.

Garter Snakes

(Eastern Plains and Common) (Thamnophis radix radix and Thamnophis sirtalis)

Garter snakes are black with yellow stripes and have grayish green bellies. The two species are similar (only a trained eye can spot the difference), but the eastern plains is the more widespread. Garter snakes live in forests, vacant lots, fields, pastures, wet meadows and marshes and eat fish, amphibians, young birds, earthworms, slugs and invertebrates. Although these snakes tolerate cold weather and can be active year-round, they spend most of the winter hibernating. Like most Winnebago County snakes, they often die on roads as they move between habitat and their “hibernacula,” their hibernation sites.

Midland Brown Snake

(Storeria dekayi wrightorum)

This small brownish gray snake has dark blotches on the sides of its neck and under its eyes. It has two rows of dark blotches down its back and a light pink belly. They live in forests and prairies, floodplains, uplands, forest edges, fields and vacant lots and eat earthworms and slugs. Predators include snakes, birds, mammals, and even large toads and spiders.

Eastern Hognose Snake

(Heterodon platirhinos)

This species is similar to the Western hognose snake.Enlarged upturned plate at tip of nose; underside of tail light; back scales keeled; anal plate divided; prefrontal scales contact each other. Medium-sized (up to 90 cm TL), stout-bodied snake highly variable in coloration and pattern. Usually gray, tan, or brown back with 20-30 dark blotches. Some individuals are olive, brown, or black with no blotches. Belly light or dark, but underside of tail always lighter than belly. Tail short, less than 22% of body length. This is the “puff adder” or “hissing viper” of folklore. Defensive behavior resembles that of western hognose snake. When first encountered, it commonly flattens the head and neck, hisses, feigns strikes (striking to the side rather than biting), releases feces and foul-smelling musk, then rolls onto its back with mouth open and appears to have died. Food consists mainly of frogs and toads. Main predators are raptors and other snakes. Found in forest-edge habitats and dry, open woods on clay or sandy loam; sand areas of northwest part of county such as Sugar River and Colored Sands Forest Preserves.

Northern Water Snake

(Nerodia sipedon)

Northern water snakes have light brown or gray bodies with dark reddish bands and light yellow bellies. They are active night and day in streams, lakes, ponds, rivers and ditches and eat small mammals, salamanders, small turtles, crustaceans, amphibians, and minnows and other small fish. They defecate when handled and readily bite, leaving wounds that bleed profusely due to an anticoagulant in their saliva. Many are killed when people mistake them for cottonmouths or copperheads, even though Winnebago County is far north of either species’ range.

Smooth Green Snake

(Opheodrys vernalis)

These small, slender green snakes have off-white bellies. They usually don’t bite when handled but will defecate and emit a strong musk. They live in prairies, savannas, bogs, marshes, wet meadows, old fields and vacant lots and eat spiders, centipedes, millipedes, slugs, snails and insects.

Western Fox Snake

(Elaphe vulpine)

Fox snakes have yellow to bronze backs with brown blotches throughout. They live in prairies, fields and pastures and eat small mammals, birds, eggs and nestlings. A fox snake may vibrate its tail when threatened to imitate a rattlesnake to deter predators. Unfortunately, many are killed when people mistake them for venomous eastern massasaugas.

Eastern Milk Snake

(Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

Eastern milk snakes are white and brown with 33 to 46 red or brown spots bordered with black. They live in wetlands and fields and along rocky, wooded hillsides. They eat small rodents, birds, lizards and snakes.