By Marcy Buffington
Many of us fortunate to live on small acreage want to take steps to improve the habitat for snakes on our property, and thus increase the chances we’ll get to see some of these beautiful creatures on a regular basis.
There are a few very affordable techniques that can be used to attract and maintain a healthy, diverse biological community on your property. One of the first things to remember is that if you want to have snakes, they have to have food. For some, this means small birds, eggs, and mammals. Others species eat insects, and some go for soft-bodied annelids like earthworms, or terrestrial gastropods like slugs. You’ll want to create favorable habitat for these food sources.
To attract birds, insects, and small mammals, you need to provide cover, food, and water. For food, I broadcast a wild game bird mix, available at most feed stores. I prefer not to use bird feeders as this concentrates mice, rats, birds, and their predators all in one area. Spreading the seed across your property encourages healthy foraging behavior, and discourages the deer and feral hogs that you may not want. For snakes that eat insects, you’ll need to leave some areas in undisturbed leaf litter and unmowed grass or brush. These unmowed areas also create nice habitat for native mice, rats, rabbits and voles, as well as for ground nesting birds. I like to create “islands” of unmowed areas that I leave untouched from season to season. You’ll be sacrificing a little of the park-like atmosphere achieved through constant mowing and clearing, but you’ll be creating a much healthier and more diverse little ecosystem.
Leave any “spiny” plants in place, such as cactus, mesquite, chaparral, blackberry, or green brier. These provide excellent, impenetrable cover and will be heavily utilized by small mammals—and hence reptiles who prey on them. Shrubs can also be “half-cut.” This involves breaking the lower limbs on a bush, and bending them to the ground, creating a canopy that can house reptiles mice and rats. During the hot summer, our half-cut mesquite are a wonderful place to find Western Diamondbacks relaxing until nightfall!
Cover can also be improved by creating brush piles with downed limbs and scrap (untreated) lumber, and by leaving any fallen trees in place. Rather than gathering up limbs that succumb to ice or wind storms, make small piles in several places throughout your property. The evolution of these little man-made habitats can be eye-opening. Within very few years, a pile of limbs can become a remarkably diverse niche habitat. One pile we made several years ago has been home to burrowing owls, western rat snakes, armadillos, cotton rats, and a litter of coyote pups, where previously there had been only overgrazed pasture.
Where I live in Texas, drought can be severe and protracted. Though usually ponds and a seasonal creek provide adequate water for wild populations, I am careful to maintain alternate water sources. One of the easiest and most affordable methods is to set up a water trough with a float valve. Galvanized troughs and valves are available at most feed stores. Just set the float valve so that the trough is always overflowing slightly. During droughts, my trough overflow has supported a truly remarkable population of predators who wait for thirsty rabbits, mice, and rats. Just make sure to put a board or concrete block “ladder” in your trough so any animal that accidentally ends up in the trough can easily get out. Another simple and affordable water can be made with a plastic tray such as is used under a water heater. Again, just set a hose to “leaky” and leave it dripping into the tray. And if you feel like you have a few extra dollars, setting a trail camera up near a water source will give you a really good idea what animals are living on your property!
Attracting and maintaining a healthy snake population on small acreage means maintaining a diverse habitat for all native species. Broadcasting food for rodents, birds and rabbits, and maintaining a constant water source are easily and affordably done. Allowing some areas to be in brush, some areas to be cleared, and some areas to have leaf litter and tree cover encourages a healthy balance among predators and prey. Watching a favorite piece of property become home to a growing and diverse wild population of snakes and other animals is enormously rewarding and not hard to achieve.