The term 'Garter Snake', usually also called grass or garden snake, refers to around twenty species of non-venomous snakes that are found all over the US. They can also be found in abundant numbers in Central America, Mexico, and southern parts of Canada. Most snakes are banded or striped lengthwise, and some have spots between the stripes. The common garter snake is between 22 inches (55 cm) to 160 inches (140 cm) long. Although they are related to water snakes, they are less aquatic. They can usually be found in the vicinity of water in dry areas and are distributed widely in moist areas. The female snake gives birth to large litters of live young, often numbering up to 50 or more.
Hunting and Feeding Habits
When hunting, these snakes rely chiefly on their sight, hearing by sensing the vibrations on the ground, smell, and taste. The last two senses are used in combination with the Jacobson's organ, which occurs on the mouth's roof. They are very agile, a feature which helps them capture their prey successfully. They hunt for their prey in the cooler parts of the day such as early morning, early evening, and late afternoon.
Like all snakes, this breed is carnivorous. They eat just about anything that they can overpower, such as frogs, rodents, fish, birds, lizards, leeches, insects, earthworms, and slugs. When they live near water, they hunt and eat other aquatic animals. They swallow their food whole. Even though their diet comprises mostly live animals, they even eat eggs sometimes.
Due to their small size, these snakes have a tendency of cooling down and heating up quickly. Similar to other reptiles, they bask in the sun in order to warm up. They try and maintain the temperature of their body between 72-88 °F (22-32 °C), with their ideal range being 84-86 °F (29-30 °C). They can continue to function in cool temperatures going down to 60 °F (16 °C), as well as high temperatures up to 93 °F (34 °C).
Many species have to hibernate in the winter because of the severe cold and a reduction in the hours available to them for basking. This dormant period is also needed to induce mating behavior. The red-sided garter, which is one of the species found in the northern regions ranging up to Canada, migrates to its hibernaculum, which is usually the same one that it uses year after year. In fact, garters can travel distances of up to 3.5 km to get to their site of hibernation.
When these snakes hibernate, they do it in aggregations, which means hundreds of them collecting in the same hibernaculum, where they spend the winter together and also have access to each other for the breeding season in spring. In the cold weather, the hibernaculum's temperature never goes below 27-39 °F (3-4 °C). Hence, the snakes can remain safe without impacting their health in general or causing much loss of weight. Such dormancy can be sustained by them by feeding heavily in the latter part of summer.
With the arrival of spring, it can take up to 2 or more weeks for the hibernaculum to warm up. During this period, the snakes come awake slowly, some even going out of the den for short forays and coming back in the night in order to stay away from the night temperatures outside, which can still be cold. This helps them to not get caught in the open in a late frost.