Of all the creatures you might encounter in your backyard, none has been as maligned as the snake. As far back as the second chapter of Genesis, snakes have been portrayed as not just dangerous, but sneaky, deceitful, and treacherous. Very human qualities to ascribe to animals – are we projecting? In parts of the world extreme caution around snakes is advisable, but Montclair is not one of them. No venomous snakes are endemic to our town, so encountering a poisonous one here is about as likely as encountering a Genesis-style talking one.

Local garden snake in David Wasmuth’s backyard.

Rather than being feared, the two snake species common in Montclair yards, the garter snake and the smaller northern brown snake, deserve to be welcomed. Both dine on garden pests such as snails and slugs, and the garter snake will also swallow small rodents. Shy of humans, both species keep a low profile, hiding under rocks, mulch, leaf piles, or fallen logs. My occasional snake encounters usually happen in early spring as I prepare my garden. While moving mulch or adjusting stones, I sometimes uncover a brown snake, usually no more than a few inches long; and while moving pots I might find a garter snake sheltering under one. Sluggish in the cool weather, the exposed snakes will freeze in place before slipping away to a better hiding place. Cool sunny spring mornings may tempt them to sunbathe on lawns, driveways, or even roads, often with fatal consequences as they remain immobile in the path of lawnmowers or cars.

Of the two species, the garter snake is the more flamboyant. Greenish with white stripes stretching the length of its body, it can grow as long as two feet. The brown snake, with its subtle brownish to grayish coloring and small size (about a foot maximum) is easier to overlook. Both are nonaggressive but, like most wildlife, might bite if provoked so it’s best not to handle them – a bite from an adult garter snake, while not poisonous, would be painful. Picking one up is likely to be unpleasant even without a bite. When caught they release a stinky liquid designed to disgust predators. It’s not a fool-proof defense; I once witnessed two backyard chickens subjecting a captured brown snake, clearly a prized morsel, to a tug-of-war.

The forked tongue is one of the most emblematic snake features. Strange or even ominous from the human perspective, tongue flicks are the snake’s primary window to the world. Explanations posed for the flicking forked tongue have included an enhanced sense of taste (two tongues being better than one to savor a slug) or a way to clean out their nostrils. The anti-snake contingent once insisted that tongues were used to inject venom. Later consensus held the tongue to be an organ of touch. As it turns out, the snake’s tongue has nothing to do with taste, hygiene, or touch; it is used for smell. The fork in the tongue creates a sense of smell variously described as “stereo” or “3D,” lending uncanny accuracy to tracking prey. With weak vision and hearing, 3D smell is the snake’s main way of perceiving the world. Supplementing this is its ability to sense vibrations through the ground, useful both in estimating the size of possible prey and detecting the approach of predators.

While snakes may seem about as alien from us as a species can get, humans, or at least this human, can relate to the seasonal habits of our local garter and brown snakes. In spring and fall, they are most active during the peak hours of the day, sheltering during the cool mornings and evenings. In summer, they are out and about mornings and evenings, shunning the mid-day heat. As for winter, they curl up (literally) with friends in sheltered spots. Group hibernation helps keep their body temperatures above freezing, with favorite hibernation spots including loose stone walls, rotting logs, and abandoned animal burrows.

Live litters are born in the summer, usually with between 10 and 25 offspring. Snakes show some family solidarity; the mother often stays close to her newborns for several days, and siblings hang out together for a few weeks, shedding skin frequently as they grow.

A snake, even one from our nonaggressive, non-poisonous local breeds, may never have the cute cuddly charm of, say, a chipmunk. However, it’s time to look beyond thousands of years of negative PR and see snakes for what they really are: a key component of our local ecosystem and an ally against garden pests. As with other wildlife, don’t try to handle them – remember, chipmunks can bite, too! —but appreciate their vital part of the web of life that makes up a healthy backyard habitat.

Mosquitoes Bothering You? Time for a Bucket of Doom!

Just as the proliferation of tulips marks the transition to a Montclair spring, the proliferation of signs advertising spraying for mosquitoes marks the transition to a Montclair summer. As I outlined in a Montclair Local article last year, spraying your yard for mosquitoes is both ineffective in controlling mosquitoes and devastating for pollinators and other beneficial insects. A safe, easy, cheap, and much more effective approach is the “Bucket of Doom” (doom for mosquitoes, that is), which targets mosquitoes where it counts, at the larval stage. Any homeowner can make one, and the more homes that have them, the fewer mosquitoes the town will have. Here’s the recipe:

Toss a few handfuls of straw in a bucket.
Fill the bucket two thirds full of water.
Toss in half a mosquito dunk tablet (available at local hardware stores).
Set in a sunny spot.
Add water occasionally to keep the bucket filled and change the dunk tablet monthly.

The straw/water combination creates an irresistible spot for mosquitoes to lay eggs. The dunk tablet contains a virus that kills mosquito larvae but is harmless to everything else. Result: mosquitoes keep laying their eggs in the bucket, the larvae never survive to adulthood, mosquito numbers drop, and no other life forms (animal or human) are harmed. The cost of a single dunk table is less than two dollars, so the Bucket of Doom treatment costs less than a dollar a month – mosquito spraying services cost hundreds of dollars per season. And the Bucket of Doom actually works.

David Wasmuth is a local environmentalist and amateur naturalist. He is a Rutgers environmental steward and the founder of the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project. Wasmuth and Sanford Sorkin alternate writing “What’s in Your Backyard,” for Montclair Local, focusing on birds and beasts you may see around your neighborhood.