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Gopher snake is a useful reptile for South Texas
by Karen Benson
Feb 23, 2014 | 43 views | 0 0 comments | 1 1 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Karen Benson photo

Even large, wild Bullsnakes can be quite gentle and will allow themselves to be picked up. This big Bullsnake (held by Robert Benson) was found on the Benson farm in Bee County. Notice the banded tail and its tendency to constrict around the neck of its “friend.”  Bullsnakes are very useful in the control of burrowing rodents like pocket gophers and ground squirrels.
Karen Benson photo Even large, wild Bullsnakes can be quite gentle and will allow themselves to be picked up. This big Bullsnake (held by Robert Benson) was found on the Benson farm in Bee County. Notice the banded tail and its tendency to constrict around the neck of its “friend.” Bullsnakes are very useful in the control of burrowing rodents like pocket gophers and ground squirrels.
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The Beeville Garden Club members were all a twitter—or perhaps all a-twitching! We had been listening to our guest speaker, Justin Butts of Four String Farm in Rockport, tell us how to improve our vegetable gardens. Then he dropped a bombshell. One lady had asked, “How do we get rid of those pesky gophers?” Justin had replied, “Buy a gopher snake.”

At first, I thought he was kidding. But he was serious. He had actually done it! He ordered a gopher snake via the Internet and had it shipped to his farm. Then he opened up one of the gopher mounds and released the snake into the tunnel. Within a few days, no more gophers!

We gardeners were very excited (some of us were very uneasy) about this possibility. Natural control of a garden pest sounded so much more humane than shooting, trapping or poisoning the gophers.

Of course, there were more questions for Justin. How do you get the snake back? Answer: You don’t. The snake just goes on living in the gopher tunnels and in your garden. I could see some of our garden club members pale at this thought. They wouldn’t be buying any snakes!

Next question: How much do gopher snakes cost? In general, the snake is $30 to $40, and the shipping is another $35 or so. This might seem like a lot, but gardeners who consider pocket gophers to be their worst enemies would find it well worth the price.

How long does the snake treatment work? Justin recounted that it took a year or two before the gopher mounds began showing up again. Now it was really getting to be worth the initial cost!

I had another question. What does a gopher snake look like? But I didn’t want to show my ignorance. After all I am supposed to be a Master Naturalist.

As soon as I got home, however, I got out my copy of A Field Guide to Texas Snakes, by Alan Tennant and looked up gopher snake. The index sent me to Sonoran Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer). Nonvenomous. See Bullsnake (previous page).

What? See Bullsnake? I looked and to my surprise, a Bullsnake is the same species as the Sonoran Gopher Snake! They are considered to be two subspecies of Pituophis catenifer. The Sonoran Gopher Snake (P. c. affinis) is the more western form of the widespread Bullsnake (P. c. sayi). In Texas, the Sonoran Gopher Snake is found only in the El Paso area.

Bullsnakes are found throughout the center of the United States, from Mexico to Canada. That means that Bullsnakes are common here in South Texas. In fact, you have probably seen them. They are BIG, second only in size to Texas Indigo Snakes. Bullsnakes are commonly six feet long. One giant individual measured 8 feet, 6 ½ inches!

Bullsnakes have a khaki-colored head with brown freckles, and their bodies are pale yellow with brown block-patterning. The tail is marked with black crossbands. They look a lot like rattlesnakes at first glance.

These snakes carry their resemblance to rattlesnakes a bit farther. They act like rattlesnakes in that they rear up, curve their bodies into coils, hiss and feign an attempt to strike. Like the Sonoran Gopher Snake, a Bullsnake will rapidly vibrate its tail at the same time as it exhales across a glottal flap in its throat. The resulting buzz and motion is startlingly suggestive of a rattlesnake.

However, Pituophis snakes are really quite harmless. Some wild individuals will even allow themselves to be picked up. Gentleness seems to depend on the temperature and the individual’s temperament. But remember, they are strong snakes and they constrict their prey. You might not want to let one wrap around your neck.

Bullsnakes and Sonoran Gopher Snakes feed on burrowing rodents, especially pocket gophers and ground squirrels. Both of these mammals can wreak havoc in your garden. Pocket gophers are herbivores, grazing on short vegetation and roots. Pocket gophers have cheek pouches (pockets) which they fill with plants when out and about; they then store this food underground. Ground squirrels are talented diggers, but their diet is omnivorous. They eat a wide variety of plant materials, but will also feed on insects, birds’ eggs and small animals.

You may be wondering how the Bullsnake got its name. They are said to be “bull-headed” with a muscular neck, a heavy skull and an upturned rostral (nose) scale that helps them root through gravelly, calcareous soil. One source says the thick ridge on the top of the snake’s head resembles the boss of a bull’s horn.

Even a single individual Pituophis snake can make a serious dent in a population of rodents. If you garden or farm, you need to have at least one of these snakes around. But you may not have to buy one off the Internet. They are widely distributed in Texas, particularly in dry, open-country terrain. Chances are there is a gopher-eating snake near you. If you see one, leave it be. It will grow fat on pocket gophers. And your garden will thank you for it!
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