A question like this catches at my gut much like startling to a rattlesnake coiled in my path. “Snakes are just terrific to have around.” I said. He waited dubiously for further explanation.
Imagine having a reputation that causes the dominant species to grab a shovel and hack you to death! Perhaps it’s that legless method of ambulation known as slithering that freaks us out. It is a little creepy. That, and the fact that a snake hides so well in plain sight that we don’t see it until we’re about to step on it.
Some people believe every snake they see is a rattlesnake. One of the more common and widespread of our desert snakes mimics the rattlesnake in appearance and behavior and is often killed as a result. The gopher snake, also called a bull snake, is a big, heavy-bodied snake – four to six feet long. People get panicky about this snake because of its large size. A cornered gopher snake also reacts aggressively, hissing and coiling into a striking position while flattening its head into a triangular shape. It rattles its tail ominously, and if the snake is in an area of dry leaves, this will sound like the real thing. But check out the banded tail and note the absence of rattles. Despite the impressive display, the gopher snake is harmless to humans and is in fact extremely beneficial, as it consumes large numbers of rodents.
The gopher snake is a constrictor and lives in burrows or under rocky ledges. In these tight areas, the muscular snake can actually squish a rat up against the side of the burrow. Most active in the early morning and evening, the gopher snake might be seen crossing a road or a hiking trail as it canvasses its territory. These snakes are also great climbers and can scale a rock outcropping with ease. Various subspecies adapt to habitats ranging from coniferous forests to brush lands, woodlands and prairies. The Sonoran gopher snake is most common in our desert environment. If you get a chance, take a moment to admire this gorgeous animal. Reddish to chocolate brown saddles line the back of the snake, darkening and shrinking to bands as they reach the tail. The rich dark colors contrast with a lovely creamy background. The underbelly of the gopher snake is cream to pale yellow in color.
Artists of the Southwest Pueblo cultures carve fetishes from stone, and the snake is a popular image. Some believe the snake has curative powers; others connect snake fetishes to lightning and the powerful storms that sweep the Southwest. A Zuni artist told me that the snake is the most sacred of all creatures, as its entire body is in constant touch with the earth. (515)
A Nature History of the Sonoran Desert
Audubon’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians