Gopher snakes make for beneficial rodent control

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Brian Sapp holds a large gopher snake found on his property in Anza. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

The misunderstood gopher snake is actually one of the best forms of natural rodent control that exists in the Anza Valley. With their stealthy manner and lightning quick strikes, mice, rats, squirrels and rabbits are on high alert when the serpents are on the hunt.

Their common name, gopher snake, refers to their taste for gophers. They also love eggs, much to the chagrin of poultry keepers as they discover the reptiles swallowing their birds’ eggs right out of the nest.

The local gopher snake species, Pituophis catenifer, is a large reptile, averaging an adult length of 48 to 66 inches. They are white, yellow or light gray with brown, dark or red blotches and stripes. The coloration helps hide them in the grass and shrubbery where they hunt. Their varied patterns also cause people to mistake them for rattlesnakes.

However, gopher snakes are usually longer and thinner than rattlesnakes. A gopher snake’s head is narrow and rounded, not rectangular like the dreaded rattlers. Like most nonvenomous snakes in the United States, gopher snakes have round pupils and are not vertical like the pupils of rattlesnakes.

A gopher snake swallows a chicken egg on a farm in Aguanga. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

Gopher snakes also do not display the heat-sensing facial pits that rattlers and other pit vipers possess and do not have rattles on the end of their tails.

Despite the differences, many gopher snakes want others to think they are the much more dangerous rattlesnake, as they mimic their venomous cousins when threatened by rapidly vibrating their tails, piffing, coiling and hissing loudly.

The gopher snake is one of the most widespread snake species in North America, adapting well to a wide variety of habitats, such as deserts, prairies, brushlands and forests. They hunt small mammals, birds, insects and eggs. Gopher snakes are nonvenomous constrictors, coiling tightly around their prey to subdue it.

In June and August, several females lay their large eggs in the same communal nest in a sheltered location such as under a log. Eggs hatch after around 64-79 days and the hatchlings are on their own to begin hunting small prey. Young Pacific gopher snakes are already 13-17 inches long when they emerge from the egg.

Gopher snakes can be intimidating because of their size and threat displays, but there’s little to fear because they are nonvenomous. In fact, they help keep the rodent population in check and maintain their local ecosystems, according to Stanford University.

Foxes, hawks, roadrunners and coyotes are the most common predators of gopher snakes. King snakes will also prey on them.

These snakes are usually active during the day. They are good climbers and burrowers, creeping down rodent holes seeking their small prey.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at dsieker@reedermedia.com.