Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 23, 2011

Snake Spaghetti

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:57 pm

I suppose I could blame it on the Short-eared Owl – the second one that is. I originally had no intention of walking that extra section of dike at Pointe Mouillee after having trekked a good three miles of it already. I had flushed a Short-eared earlier and assumed that was my one and only chance (first one I’ve seen in over ten years). Yes, it was a beautiful March morning and the temperatures were touching the 60’s but still I was due home. Besides, I watched this bird vanish into the reedbeds along the far western portion of the marsh. It was well out of reach. When I unexpectedly flushed another Short-eared along what was to be the “return” portion of my journey, I abandoned all plans and opted to follow this one the best I could manage.  This elusive fowl, a daytime hunter whose “ears” are so short that they are practically non-existent, was a rare find (although now the second bird in only 30 minutes time). I could not afford to pass up the opportunity to flush it at a point where I expected it to be.

When this bird took off, I snapped an instinctive shot for the sake of confirming what I thought I saw (see here). It circled well out over the mouth of the Huron River and temporarily joined with a flock of Ring-billed Gulls for a few lazy circles over the water. It then broke off and, with moth-like wing pumps, descended to the rocks lining a distant portion of one of the many branching dike sections.  I doubled back and carefully approached the area (after a ten minute walk). This time I was ready, so I snuck along, and stopped every few minutes to peer into the rocks. Unfortunately, after much peering and having gone well past the anticipated location without success, I realized that I had been duped. Either the critter had re-flushed long before I arrived or it smarted up and remained tight among the rocks in spite of my peer pressure.

I have always maintained that such events – like letting yourself get sidetracked, for instance – are never a waste of time. More often than not the unplanned detour leads to new discoveries.  I was not disappointed in this regard.  When I turned around to walk back, a swimming muskrat caught my eye as it exited from one of the large corrugated culverts. When I stopped to watch it, my eyes were forced to re-focus on the bank just above the culvert. There, the moving ground gradually formed itself into a pile of writhing snakes . I had stumbled upon a Garter Snake Ball.

In short, a Garter Snake Ball is a breeding behavior in which masses of horny male Eastern Garters seek to mate with a single female.  The guys, fresh out of hibernation themselves, gather about the female dens and wait for her to get up. As soon as she emerges, they are all over her. She is “unfresh” and so are they – both parties still covered with the stale skin of a winter’s nap, but they go about it like a Roman orgy. I, of course, have never seen a Roman Orgy, but I’ve read about them and I think this must capture the look, if not the feel, of one. Take a look at the video here and see if you don’t agree.

Please don’t get on the guys for being so …so… mobbish. They can’t help themselves. The female not an innocent party in this affair. She only has a week or so to get this job done and she’s not in the mood for waiting around.  She exudes irresistible pheromones (Purple Passion Perfume) through her skin with the deliberate intention of eliciting this mass reaction.  All the local males will try to mate with her as if they were in a drugged state (which, in a way, they are). In this case about nine or so glassy-eyed guys were glomming onto the larger female as if she were magnetized. Their wiggling tails, the location of their vents and male organs, were seeking the primary target at the other end of the femme fatale.

In most cases, one of the males will be able to join vents with the female and deposit his seed within a matter of minutes. Once this is accomplished, the successful male will leave a “mating plug” – a cork you could say – to seal her off from other lovers. This plug exudes a pheromone which negates the female’s perfume and causes all the other males to flee town. It renders the gal “undesirable for further consideration” and the game is over.

I’m not sure how long this particular breeding ball had been going on before I arrived, but the party did break up momentarily when the female spotted me. She moved back toward the water and the whole mass tumbled into the drink. The effect was like a cold shower and the snakes shot off in all directions as they sought land. Once she regained terra firma, however, the mass re-formed for a second go around (see above) but it was without the earlier enthusiasm. Perhaps one of the suitors had hit the mark and his cologne was putting a damper on the party or her perfume had washed off. Either way, the gang dispersed.  Still, the males were plenty perky (see below).

I noted that one of the snakes had a wonderful red stripe along the side (see below). He stood out from the crowd when it was still in the mosh pit stage. Eastern Garters tend to be a variable species and one with a red stripe will occasionally show up in eastern populations. Further north and west, there is a sub-species called the Red-sided Garter in which all the specimens have this prominent red siding. It is worth noting that the Red-sided Garters of southern Manitoba far outdo our easterners in the art of playing ball. Each May, the tens of thousands of the snakes emerge from their dens near Narcisse and literally cover the ground with a living mass of love spaghetti.

As for myself, I was plenty happy with my loving spoonful of spaghetti on the Mouillee dikes.


  1. I recently saw (and blogged about) some emerging garters here, too. The color variations were stunning: yellow striped, orange striped, and spotted striped. Only two were in a “ball” – guess one could hardly call it a ball with only two – maybe a hank. There were plenty of other individuals in the area, though. Maybe they were dispersing males, the deed already having been completed? Hm.

    Comment by Ellen — March 23, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

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  9. When I was 12 years old I came upon a garter snake ball on a warm March afternoon. I collected them in a brown paper bag. What does a 12 year old boy do with a dozen garter snakes? I wandered back to my school and the windows to my 6th grade classroom were still open due to the warm weather. Class was actually cancelled for a day due to a couple of panicked elementary schoolteachers who didn’t share my appreciation of garter snakes. I got a couple of extra days off as well. My parents weren’t much into punishment so I spent that time in the fields and woods around the St Joseph river in St Joseph county Michigan, probably learning far more than I would have in a traditional classroom.

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