This story was originally published in September 2021.
Baby woodland critters are often associated with the spring.
But for some, fall is the time for babies, and September is an active month for baby snakes who are dividing their time between eating as much as possible and looking for a place to spend the winter.
Maine is home to nine species of snakes, all non-venomous, according to Jeremy Bullock, president of the Maine Herpetological Society. The most common, he said, is the garter snake. Other snakes in the state are the brown, ribbon, smooth green, northern water, milk, northern black racer, ringneck and redbelly. Their babies tend to look like miniature versions of the adults, he said.
“The one you are most likely to see are the common garter snakes,” Bullock said. “Those little guys are so much fun and tend to be quite active in the daytime when they are out sunning themselves or looking for prey.”
Snakes mate in the spring, Bullock said, and depending on the species, up to 70 days later lay their eggs or give birth to live babies. Either way, once that happens, the females are done with their young.
“With mammals the reproductive strategy tends to be having smaller numbers of babies at a time and taking care of them until they can fend for themselves,” Bullock said. “Reptiles give birth or lay eggs and then the mom is gone, so they have a lot of babies at a time and hopefully a few will make it.”
It’s a good strategy since many baby snakes are no bigger than a nightcrawler when they are born. That size makes them very vulnerable to predation, according to Bullock.
Assuming a snake does not get eaten or killed by another animal in the first months of its life, it needs to find a safe place to overwinter, and according to Bullock, that can be a pretty short window of time in Maine.
“Right now they are looking to eat like crazy,” Bullock said. “Most of a snake’s growth potential is in the first two to three years of its life and they need to eat as much as they can right now to survive the winter.”
Luckily, snakes are born ready to hunt and immediately start feeding on earthworms, slugs, baby frogs and small salamanders, Bullock said.
Since none of the snakes in Maine can dig, they will invade a burrow other animals have dug or look for natural crevices in which to spend the winter, Bullock said. The one criteria for their winter home is that it’s below the frost line where temperatures range from the upper 30s- to 40-degrees Fahrenheit.
“They will be cool, but not freeze solid,” Bullock said. “They enter a form of hibernation that slows down all their biological processes and hunker down until the weather warms up in the spring.”
Bullock said observing baby snakes in the wild is one of the joys in the Maine woods.
“They are quite harmless,” he said. “If you want to pick one up, you can and if you found it under a rock you moved, place it back gently because it has worked hard to find that place.”