Snakes Alive!

Live corn snake is highlight of Nature Museum presentation

By Alison Rooney

A simple question was posed at the beginning of Snakes Alive, a recent presentation by Carl Heitmuller, wildlife educator with the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum (HHNM): Why are you here today?” The first two replies elicited from audience members just about covered the spectrum of reactions to these creatures:

“Because I like snakes,” was simply put, by Jack, a boy from Philipstown.

“My wife is terrified of them, and someone said we had a nest and we came here to find out more,” was the answer given by a man from Garrison, while his wife nodded in agreement.

A concise “it seemed interesting” spoke to the constant fascination these reptiles hold for humans. At this presentation, given as part of an ongoing series at Cold Spring’s Hubbard Lodge, co-sponsored by the HHMN and the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, Heitmuller first defined the most salient characteristics of snakes as a whole, then ran down a list of those most commonly seen in this area, with photos illustrating each snake described. Finally, he brought out a live corn snake, carrying it around the room before releasing it on the floor inside a circle formed by attendees.

Wildlife Educator Carl Heitmuller allowed kids to get up close and personal with a Corn Snake.  Photo by A. Rooney

Wildlife Educator Carl Heitmuller allowed kids to get up close and personal with a Corn Snake.  Photo by A. Rooney

We all know, more or less, what snakes are, but their defining characteristics, according to Heitmuller, are that they are in the reptile family, are scaled, and that most lay eggs in soil, although some do give birth to live young. (For instance, both types of poisonous snake found locally — copperheads and rattlesnakes — hatch their eggs internally and the baby snakes then emerge, alive. This gives them a better chance of survival in the wild.) They lack limbs; are carnivores; have flexible jaws, designed to swallow food whole; they are ectothermic, meaning cold-blooded and are unable to regulate their internal temperature, so if they get cold, they must seek sun in order to survive, and the reverse.

Some (for example, pythons) have two small claws with which to hold onto the females when mating. Most barely have to eat — once a week is the standard. They sleep with their eyes open, not blinking, never closing their eyes. They have a scale which covers their eyes and when they shed their skin, they lose the scales. Snakes tend to shed their skin in one long piece, often by rubbing against rocks or a woodpile.

The most commonly found snakes in this area are garters, black rat, northern water snake, timber rattlesnake, Copperhead, hognose, milk, Eastern worm, DeKay’s brown, green snake and Eastern ribbon. A few characteristics of each:

Garter — has three yellow stripes. Adults measure 18 to 54 inches. They feed on earthworms, slugs, larval amphibians, some insects, small fish and a few mammals. They hibernate in groups of a few to a few thousand. In spring you can sometimes spot “mating balls” in which hundreds of males are on top of one female, attempting to mate with her.

Ribbon — A bit larger than the garter, the similar — in appearance — ribbon snake also can be differentiated through its larger eyes.

Green — 12 to 20 inches in length, they often overwinter in homes.

Hognose — a stocky mid-sized snake, up to 45 inches in length, with a turned-up snout. They burrow in loose, sandy soil and have a unique defensive behavior in which they play dead and give off a bad odor. Ranging in color from bright yellow with black markings to a sandy brown, the hognose hisses — it’s one of the few to actually make a noise, and feeds mainly on toads.

A Corn Snake, which attendees circled around, was the highlight of the "Snakes Alive" presentation.   Photo by A. Rooney

A Corn Snake, which attendees circled around, was the highlight of the ”Snakes Alive” presentation.   Photo by A. Rooney

Black Rat — has a black and white checkered pattern on its underside. Long snakes — the New York state record is about 8 feet — they are powerful constrictors and good climbers with a diet of rodents and eggs. As the snake ages it darkens, going from a camouflage pattern when small to the black color when mature. They hibernate with other snakes in openings in rocky outcrops and in basements.

Black Racer — a fast mover, 3 to 7 feet long, is commonly confused with the black rat. One side is completely black, with a grey belly. It is found mostly in fragmented forests in the eastern part of New York, as far north as Lake George. The black racer will stand his ground and, if disturbed, will turn and face you.

Eastern Milk — just 2 to 3 feet long, is often encountered near barns, sheds, and garages. Slender, with reddish-brown blotches bordered with black edges forming a round pattern on its back, it is a benign snake frequently confused with the poisonous copperhead.

Copperhead — one of the two dangerous snakes, has a pattern which is wide on the side, narrow on the back. A venomous pit viper, it has facial pits that detect infrared radiation, through the holes in its mouth. They are communal den hibernators; their habitat is the forest floor.

Northern water snakes shouldn’t be picked up, as they are skittish, and, while not poisonous per se, they have an anti-coagulant in their bite which can lead to blood loss for the bitten. Their habitat is any permanent body of fresh water, and they consume fish and frogs. Often mistaken for the poisonous cottonmouth, they shouldn’t be, in this area, because cottonmouths are not found here. They are usually 24 to 42 inches and heavy-bodied, brown or reddish brown.

The HHNM will be presenting a similar Meet a Live Snake program at their Wildlife Education Center, located at 25 Boulevard, Cornwall-on-Hudson, on Dec. 12 and 13 at 1 p.m. and again at 2:30 p.m. Other wildlife will also be on display, including the current Marvelous Moths exhibit with fun interactive elements. Admission is $3; free for children under the age of three. For more information visit or call 845-534-5506.

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