In nature, faking it is a complicated game of survival. Birds that nest on the ground often look like dust and duff. The nighthawks’ eggs and babies resemble small stones while a newly hatched Townsend's solitaire resembles tiny pieces of charcoal. So effective are bitterns that they seem to vanish amidst stalks of marsh vegetation. Mule deer fawns disappear in dappled sunlight. The gopher snake may carry this form of imitation a little too far. First, some personal history. Years ago I heard a rumor that a professor (of literature) was teaching a fly-fishing course at a Portland college. The prof reportedly told his students to kill all the gopher snakes they encountered because gopher snakes had crossbred with rattlesnakes and could kill.
Now if that isn’t the most ridiculous bunch of nonsense I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is. But, when you consider the rationale behind such an opinion—and that’s all that it was, a goofy opinion—you’ve almost got to put some of the blame on the gopher snake.
Gopher snakes, sometimes called bull snakes (Pituophis catenifer), are as common as garter snakes in some parts of Oregon. No matter what you call them, they are harmless and beneficial.
Gopher snakes have neither venomous glands, nor the hollow fangs necessary to inject said venom. The Western pacific rattlesnake, on the other hand—even the tiny rattler shown above that does not have a full “rattle” (“buzzer,” actually)—is equipped with exquisite equipment from the time it hatches and can deliver the goods.
While Pacific rattlesnakes are usually shy and less apt to easily rile, gopher snakes seem to be ready to do battle at the first meeting. And, unfortunately for them, they often mimic rattlesnakes.
My son Dean, now a retired Air Force colonel, was a collector of snakes by age three. He couldn’t resist a snake no matter how big or how aggressive. Even stinky garter snakes, which excrete very nasty-smelling glop onto one’s hands, could not discourage Dean.
I feared for his safety. In spite of constant, if mild, warnings—so as not to scare a 3-year old or inhibit his wonderful curiosity—he would just as quickly grab up a rattler as a garter snake and not think twice about it.
One day while traveling a back road in Wasco County, an exquisite gopher snake wandered out onto the road. It looked as big around as a broom handle and was hot to trot. “Dean,” I asked, pointing to the snake ahead of us, “do you want that snake?”
“Oh, yeah, Dad!” he replied enthusiastically.
“Go get him, Frank Buck!” I said, and pulled over.
“You wouldn’t…” His mother said.
Out little Dean went and without a moment’s hesitation he stooped to grab that big bull snake around the middle. Well now, that old timer had no patience with a kid like that so it just coiled up, flattened out its head, hissed with tongue flicking, shook its his tail like a rattler, and proceeded to bite my son again and again.
I’ll never forget the look on Dean’s face as he came back proudly carrying the writhing snake. “I got him Dad,” he shouted triumphantly. “And he bites, too!”
My neighbor called me the other day to tell me that he had killed a rattlesnake that was attacking his cat. (The truth may have been just the reverse scenario.) Without seeing it, I was sure the dead snake was in reality a silly gopher snake that had done the rattlesnake act to protect itself.
I was right. The (now deceased) snake was so convincing that my neighbor was positive that he had eliminated a snake that threatened the life and limb of his entire family. Another good snake bites the dust. Bull, or gopher, snakes are one of the best mouse-catchers in the business. True, they don’t eat as many mice as an owl, but they’re good at what they do and every little bit helps when it comes to those problematic rodents. (If you don’t believe me, consider the old Hopi Indian admonition, "Never let a mouse live in your home; it will steal the breath of your children." A reference to what we now call hantavirus.)
Gopher snakes would have a better life if they would just refrain from their rattlesnake bluff. It would help even more if people weren’t so quick to kill every snake they see, rattlesnake or no. Unfortunately, snakes do not realize that most people just don’t have any patience or sense of humor when it comes to snakes, imitators or otherwise.