Northwestern Garter Snake

Northwestern Garter Snake, Vancouver Island, BC
Northwestern Garter Snake, Vancouver Island, BC, Photo By Bud Logan

This garter snake varies more in color and pattern than any other snake in our region. Sometimes they appear to have blue eyes, but this is just a layer of skin over the eye when they are shedding old skin that makes their eyes look blue, pretty awesome to see.

It is a small snake that can reach up to 60 cm in length, adults are black, brown, or olive in color. They have a stripe running down their back, however, the width of the stripe varies, and sometimes the stripe is missing entirely.

Some individuals have stripes down the sides of the body, with spots between the back and side stripes. The colors of these stripes and spots vary like the rainbow to bright yellow, red, tan, blue, white, and cream are the most common colors. While the belly usually is pale, some snakes have bold black or red markings.

Fortunately, there is one marking that is fairly reliable and can be used to help identify the northwestern garter snake, they all have a pale upper lip that is quite visible.

Like the common garter snake and the western terrestrial garter snake, the northwestern garter snake responds to handling by releasing a smelly mix of musk and droppings from its tail vent.

Northwestern garter snakes usually mate in spring after emergence from their winter hibernation dens. Northwestern garter snakes are live-bearing. Females give birth to between 3 and 20 live young sometime around July, August, or sometimes as late as September.

Because of their small size, northwestern garter snakes can be an easy meal for a number of predators such as birds of prey and mink. However, it appears that northwestern garter snakes have learned to make the most of their variable coloration. Studies show that brightly striped snakes flee when faced with a predator. The snake’s stripes make it difficult to tell exactly what direction and speed it is moving. Thus confusing the predator and increasing the chance of escape. While spotted and faintly striped, garter snakes use their camouflage and remain motionless to avoid detection from predators.

Northwestern Garter snake, Vancouver Island, BC
Northwestern Garter snake eating a slug, Vancouver Island, BC, photo by Bud Logan

Northwestern garter snakes are fairly inactive snakes and feed during the day. Their laid back lifestyle works for them just fine because most of the food they eat is even more sedentary than they are. These snakes mostly eat slugs and earthworms, along with the occasional snail and small amphibians. Once an adult’s mouth is large enough, they will also eat any bird eggs they find.

Northwestern garter snakes are found in southwestern B.C. as far inland as Manning Park and on many of the coastal islands, including all of Vancouver Island.

Northwestern garter snakes need two kinds of habitats: summer feeding and breeding areas, and winter dens to hibernate in. They like damp, heavily vegetated areas, including meadows, the edge of forests, estuaries, and beaches. They also can be found in roadside vegetation, in weedy urban areas, and around stacked wood and other debris in the yard of most homes.

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