Western Fox Snakes are three to six feet long snakes with a black and yellow checkerboard pattern on their belly. They are usually light golden brown with dark brown spots and a short, flattened snout. Like most North American snakes, fox snakes are not venomous. Fox snakes earned their name because the musk they give off when threatened smells similar to a fox.
The upper Midwestern United States, from Wisconsin west to South Dakota and south to Illinois and Indiana. The range of the closely related Eastern Fox Snake, Pantherophis gloydi, skirts the Great Lakes in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. The two species do not overlap and there is no intergrade zone.
Varied, including open woodland, prairie, farmland, pastures and marshlands.
These strong, agile snakes are also excellent climbers but are more often found on the ground. Fox snakes are diurnal, but may hunt at night during the hot summer months. Like all snakes, fox snakes are cold-blooded and cannot adjust their own body temperature, so these snakes often hide in burrows or under logs or rocks to stay safe from extremely hot or cold weather. In winter, they hibernate underground, where they can avoid freezing temperatures.
These docile, harmless snakes use several tricks to try and scare away predators. They may shake their tails in dry leaves to trick other animals into thinking that they are rattlesnakes. They can also give off a stinky musk from glands near their tail, to make them smell less appetizing to other animals. As a last resort, these snakes may hiss loudly and strike at the threat, to try and bluff their way to safety.
Like all snakes, fox snakes are strict carnivores. Their primary diet consists of mice and other small rodents, but they will take any prey small enough to swallow whole, including young rabbits, frogs, fledglingbirds, and eggs. As constrictors, they subdue their prey by squeezing it between their coils.
Fox snakes mate in April and May. Males wrestle with one another for the right to mate with females. In June, July, or August, the female will bury a clutch of 7 to 27 eggs under a log or in debris on the forest floor. These hatch after an approximately 60 day incubation period. Young fox snakes are usually much lighter in color than adults.
They are often a welcome sight around farmland, where they consume a large number of rodents that can otherwise be harmful to crops, or transmit parasites to captive animal stocks. Though, they are opportunistic feeders, and will sometimes also eat fledgling chickens or eggs, which sometimes leads them to be erroneously called the chicken snake.
The Western Fox Snake is not listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species or CITES. While this snake is common within its range, many states have protected it, primarily to prevent over-collection for the pet trade.
- Behler, J.L., editor. 1994. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Knopf.
- Harding, J.H. 1997. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. University of Michigan Press.