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Monday, May 5, 2008

Red-sided Garter Snake

The other day I went rummaging through the odds and ends cupboard to retrieve my stack of National Geographic magazines that I had marked "Keep" when we decided to donate the bulk of them to the local hospital auxiliary several years ago. I was looking for the one that had the article on Manitoba's Red-Sided Garter Snakes Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis, a subspecies of the common garter snake. The article: Manitoba's Fantastic Snake Pits by zoologist, Michael Aleksiuk, Ph.D., November 1975. The picture is of a monument in Inwood, Manitoba.

I grew up in Winnipeg. I didn't see these snake pits until I had children of my own and we visited my parents who had retired in the same region. However, we were never there at the right time, either in the spring or the fall. When I saw them, it was during our children's school holidays, and I remember looking down into a pit and seeing one or two.

These limestone sinks, located 97km (60 miles) north of Winnipeg, near Narcisse, Manitoba are quite big, some measuring 4.5 metres (15 feet) across and 3 metres (10 feet) deep. In the winter they provide shelter for tens of thousands of garter snakes which have moved "underground beneath the rubble" by late October. In the spring, after mating, these harmless snakes "disperse for the summer to outlying marshes (where there are plenty of frogs) as far as 16km (10 miles) away." In the fall they return to their dens.

There's one wonderful picture in the article that I really like. It's of a smiling woman in Inwood, Manitoba (the snakes migrate through this small town twice yearly) who is preparing the evening meal with "George" the garter snake beside her checking out the food. It doesn't say how he got into the house, but there he is, "a regular visitor".

I also like what she said at the time, "They were here many years before us, and we have to respect them." Those words are as true today as they were thirty-three years ago.

Update - After severe winter weather in 1999 killed thousands of garter snakes before they were able to get back to the limestone pits, efforts were made to save these snakes from being further decimated. During migration they cross a highway, and in the past, many have been killed annually by passing vehicles. Now, thanks in part, to Manitoba Hydro and volunteers, there are foot high fences installed along the highway to try and encourage the snakes to use 13 cm (5 inch) tunnels under the road. This has resulted in far less fatalities. The Snakes of Narcisse Wildlife Management Area


The photo below is one I took last Saturday when I discovered this lone Red-sided Garter Snake on my front lawn. Usually they keep to the back of the house near a birch tree and in the long grass there just at the edge of the hill.

I think I will call this garter snake