How to Identify a Garter (Garden) Snake

Carolyn’s Online Magazine (#COMe)


To all the negative publicity my community, Laurel Mountain Borough, has received this spring, let me add another one: snakes. I learned about one today.

I walked up to Heidi’s house, where several children were outside. One was standing on the top step of the house covering her face, eyes slightly shut. Another was fascinated by a snake curled up with and almost entwined with a black hose in a stony/grassy spot.

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The adults came out and were concerned about the snake, whether it was harmful, should they remove it or destroy it? If so, how? There was concern for the children.

Since I just wanted to consult with Heidi I’d decided not to carry my camera. I left, went home to retrieve it, and returned. Then I began shooting the snake, thinking I would go to my computer and try to identify it.

Why should I do that? I asked myself as a light went off in my overloaded skull. Another neighbor here is great at identifying snakes.

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As I walked over to Harold’s house I was reminded of a former Laurel Mountain Borough resident and the stories he told me about his snake interest and collecting. He mentioned how he would pick up a girl for a date with snakes in his car trunk. He would milk snakes for their venom. He taught many of the people in the borough about snakes. Ultimately, I wrote a newspaper article about this man who told such fascinating tales.

Harold identified it as a garter snake, saying it was also known as a garden snake. Not poisonous, will bite if teased, probably not a nest there, it will go away on its own. He noted that they eat chipmunks.

“They’re so small (thin and long),” I commented questioningly, wondering how such a creature could ingest something much bigger than its mouth.

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While walking back to Heidi’s house I recalled a story I’d heard from a friend in another community—I cannot recall his name, so let’s say we call him Xavier. He’d found a garter snake by his goldfish pond. The snake had such a fat belly Xavier feared it had swallowed one of his goldfish. Thus, he killed the snake and cut it open (note: he once was a science teacher) to release the goldfish.

To Xavier’s surprise, a frog leapt out of the incision. Unharmed, it hopped off into the nearby lush greenery.

I passed the information about the garter snake on to Heidi before returning home.

As I reached my driveway my two cats, King (gray) and Little Dog were waiting to lead me down the driveway to my patio.

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Soon I was surfing the I-net to learn about the garter snake. The first site stated:

Garter snakes…a very adaptable group of snakes, inhabit backyards and multiple grass habitats throughout North America.

Their propensity to inhabit residential areas explains the common name, garden snake, the snakes recognized for their thin and often colorfully striped bodies.

Apart from the species with unusual field markings, multiple, similar looking species, occupy overlapping territory in many areas, creating potential identification challenges.

Garter snake identification starts by taking a good picture and applying some basic counting skills.

With respect to picture taking, while the suggestion may sound a bit frightening, keep in mind that garter snakes are typically unaggressive species with less than great eyesight.

Because ground vibrations are often their first indication of a human presence, treading lightly and moving slowly, makes it pretty easy to get within inches of one for a picture.

Extending the digital camera zoom can also capture a good picture for the more timid snake photographer.

With picture in hand, identification starts by noting body color and pattern, belly color, and facial markings. Many garter snake species, for example, have stripes running along the length of their body. (continue reading at )

NOTE: Bold and italics added by Carolyn

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I moved on to a second Internet site:

Scientific Name: Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis Size: 20-28 inches (50.8-71.1 cm) in length Status: Abundant

Habitat: Found in nearly all habitats from open talus slides, cultivated fields, open canopy deciduous and coniferous forest, swamps, marshes, and bogs to dry upland hillsides and/or human habitats. They are most often found around quarries, trash dumps, banks of ditches, canals, streams, rivers, ponds, or vacant lots, and may be found under logs, rocks, boards and other debris.

Descripton: Common medium sized striped snake with highly variable coloration. The yellowish stripes are usually well defined, though the middorsal stripe may be absent in some populations. The background dorsal color may be green, olive to brown or black. Two rows of black or red (or both) spots may appear between the vertebral and lateral stripes on each side. The belly is plain whitish or cream colored with two rows of black spots.. The head is grey, olive, tan, brown, black or a reddish coloration. Scales are keeled and the anal plate single. Found in varied habitats but usually not far from water.

Adult Coloration:

  • The dorsal has a vertebral stripe (may be absent) and two lateral stripes.
  • The stripes are white, cream, yellow, tan, brown or grey.
  • The dorsal background varies from dark green, olive, olive brown, tan, black, grey to grey brown.
  • Two rows of black or red (or both) spots may or may not appear between the vertebral and lateral stripes on each side.
  • The ventrals are grey, green, ivory, cream or yellow with two rows of black spots. These ventral spots may be hidden by the overlapping ventrals.
  • The head is grey, olive, tan, brown, black or a reddish coloration.
  • The head coloration is similar to the dorsal background.
  • The supralabials have dark bars.
  • The throat is light colored.
  • There are a few cases of melanistic individuals throughout PA.

Adult Characteristics:

  • Medium- sized, fairly heavy-bodied species.
  • The head is distinct from the body
  • Dorsal scales are keeled.

Juvenile Characteristics:

  • Similar to adults.

Scale Count:

Seeing the garter snake and responding to it made this day somewhat productive. I accomplished a little more during the remainder of the day, and now it’s time to call it a day.

Good night. Don’t let the snakes bite.


About carolyncholland

In several if my nine lives I have been a medical lab technician and a human service worker specializing in child day care, adoptions and family abuse. Currently I am a photo/journalist/writer working on a novel and a short story. My general writings can be viewed at My novel site is
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