It’s a bit early to be talking about the rainy season, but we have had a few sprinkles in the past couple weeks. These pre-season showers set into motion a lot of animal activity. Toads dig themselves out of the ground and start hunting bugs under artificial lights. Frogs (especially the invasive Cuban tree frogs) start doing a bit of calling. And snakes — well, snakes go on the prowl for a little action.
In the chilly north, snakes must estivate (like hibernation, but without true dormancy) during the frozen winter months. When it thaws, they all come out in roughly the same time frame, and one of their first priorities is to mate. It’s even more important than food, at least to the males.
In Florida, though, snakes have been active all winter. They duck and cover during the coldest spells, but otherwise they’re out and about, doing their snaky business. As a result, the mating season gets a bit more spread out.
Water snakes (Nerodia sp) are among our more cold-tolerant species. They can sometimes be seen gathered in mating groups on cold and windy winter days. The group consists of one female and several (sometimes a dozen or more) smaller males. They all cluster around her, each hoping to get a chance to mate with her. Usually they all do, though they must take turns. Needless to say, water snakes never get to wear white wedding dresses.
Garter and ribbon snakes (Thamnophis sirtailis and T. sauritus) are also OK with cold weather and mate early in the year. Some of their northern relatives form massive mating aggregations that can consist of hundreds of individuals, much like a 1960s music festival. Our local species are more conventional and usually pair off two by two.
However, most of our snakes mate in the spring. Once the temperature warms, they’re out looking for love. It’s a simple system: The female simply goes about and does her thing, not even thinking about it. The male, by contrast, goes on a night-and-day search for receptive ladies, ignoring his own well-being completely.
A male on the scent trail will do stupid things like cross a busy highway, crawl over an open field in broad daylight, and paying no attention to even the easiest prey. Naturally, quite a few lovesick male snakes are flattened or eaten (sometimes first one and then the other) during this time of year.
And it’s often right after early-season rains that this activity reaches its peak. It’s a lot easier to follow a scent trail in damp conditions than when it’s totally dry out. Just ask your dog. You’ve probably noticed how much more she sniffs around on a dewy morning than on a dry one. It’s because there’s more to smell, and the snakes know that as well.
There’s another danger for a male snake on the make, and that’s people with shovels. A lot of people don’t like snakes. That’s fine — but it’s a damn poor excuse for killing one. Let’s say I don’t particularly like dogs, but wouldn’t you think I was a terrible person if I shot a dachshund in my neighborhood just because it freaked me out? (Actually, I love dogs and have two at home, but I needed to make a point there.)
To help you decide whether a snake is dangerous or not, I’ve made you this convenient flowchart at top right. OK, so I stole it from Facebook. Whatever. No matter where it came from, it’s highly accurate. No snake wants to bite you. You’re far too big to eat, and big enough that you could eat them. The snake wants to escape.
But again, male snakes can be sort of stupid this time of year. When they have that scent of female in their heads, they get the worst case of straight-aheaditis you can imagine.
So, what I’m asking you do is just cut them some slack. If you’re a guy, you ought to have some sympathy for these fellas. Remember what it was like in high school, when you did all sorts of moronic things because of girls? That’s the situation these boys are in. And ladies: Have some sympathy — after all, he’s doing this so she doesn’t have to. He puts in the dangerous scouting work so she can spend her time finding food.
The madness will be over soon, anyway. In another month or two, most of our local female snakes will be starting to look a bit heavy in the back half as their eggs develop. They’ll be looking for good safe places to lay them: Not wet but not dry, under heavy cover, and with lots of small prey around. When the babies hatch, they’ll be on their own from day one.
Being a snake parent is one of the easiest jobs ever — but if you get run over, snatched by a hawk or chopped up with a garden implement, you never even get the chance. Why not give a snake a break? “Live and let live” should be the motto of everyone who chooses to make their home in the semi-tamed wonderland we call Florida.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.