2017-06-07 / Columns

IN THE WILD

by Dan Stiles
Wildlife Biologist

A Phoebe Tragedy

After the bluebird tragedy column, a short while back, can you guess what’s coming? This is another black rat snake story that happened less than a week ago, as faithful readers of this column surely suspected.

We have an abundant population of phoebes around our cabin in Morgan County. Seemingly they love to nest under the eaves, where they are pretty well protected from the rain and direct sunshine. We have rain gutters to catch the rain as it drips off the roof shingles, and downspouts to funnel the rain to the ground. There is a 45-degree angle beginning on each vertical downspout below the horizontal rain gutters that seems to provide an irresistible place for phoebes searching for nesting sites.

All three of our downspouts have a phoebe nest on that 45-degree angle. Two are old and reused every year. The third one was built this spring for the first time. A week ago, the female was feeding her nestlings there regularly. I hated to disturb her because no matter how silently I tried to walk by that side of the cabin, she quietly left her nest and flew to a nearby branch, chirping her alarm call every few seconds.

A few days ago, I noticed that both the male and female phoebes were hovering very close to the nest. It might be that both were waiting for the other to feed their youngsters, but their situation was getting more and more frantic and louder. I stood by that side of the cabin, and sure enough, there was a tangle of snake bodies wrapped round and round the downspout and the phoebe’s nest. There were two heads within the mass of rat snake bodies and two intertwined tails. The nestlings had been devoured by one or the other and possibly by both. I had never before seen snakes mating, but obviously that was what was happening.

After a half hour, the larger female snake ventured off along the rain gutter where I could not see her, and the male headed to the roof of the cabin over the shingles. He disappeared too. All the while I took a dozen photographs that are of interest to very few people.

Later, that same afternoon, after mowing the lawn, I returned to the cabin, and heard a loud thump on the porch. I knew very well what was happening. When big old black rat snakes are traveling along shelves, they tend to knock off objects that are unsecured. In this case it was one of several heavy glass electric insulators some kid had given me. And, upon the shelf on my porch there were the same two black rat snakes, and they were mating again. I got more good photos over the next couple of hours. Finally, the female, the larger snake, began to seek a way off the screened porch, so I propped open the door a couple of inches, and she slithered through the opening and down the steps. A few minutes later the male began to explore the porch, and he followed the female’s scent through the door and down the steps. Both were aimed to be under the cabin where I assume they are now. I never figured out how they got through the screen and on the porch.

Trouble is, I have a sleeping bag on my bed in the cabin. I can’t help but think, what if both these snakes decided they would be comfortably resting in my sleeping bag where my bare toes ought eventually be? What if that big female snake decided the inside of the far end of my sleeping bag would be a fine place to have her youngsters? I’ve come to realize that snakes do tend to turn up unexpectantly, especially at night.

The Spring of 2017 appears to be a wonderful year for unusual numbers of black rat snakes and phoebes, at least in my neck of the woods. I’m genuinely pleased about the abundance of phoebes, as you can tell.

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