It's difficult to find anyone who objects to planting wildflowers in the backyard to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. And most don't have a problem with feeding birds. But suggest a few habitat improvements to attract herptiles (reptiles and amphibians such as salamanders, toads, frogs, snakes, and lizards), and you're branded a lunatic. Just ask my wife.
Linda especially hates the pile of rocks, pallets, plywood, sheet metal, and scraps of downspout I've assembled on the edge of the yard. It's not even near the house, but she says it looks messy. Her greater concern, though, is that the pile will attract snakes. .
But that's the whole idea. My & quot;herp habitat, & quot; which Linda calls it a junk pile and is now obscured by encroaching vegetation, absorbs heat quickly and when I want to find a snake, I look for hot spots. .
Common snake area: Between May and September, I can almost always find a snake under a stray piece of sheet metal. The ground beneath the metal is hot and dry, a perfect resting place for animals whose body temperatures are controlled by their surroundings. Only in late afternoon does it get so hot that snakes slither underground to avoid overheating.
Rat snakes and milk snakes are the two species that I regularly find in my herp habitat. Sometimes several of one or both species lie intertwined, but more often a single snake occupies the spot. Ringneck and garter snakes prefer the rock piles. .
So why would anyone actually encourage snakes to live in a backyard? Words to that effect have certainly crossed Linda's lips more than a few times. My answer is always the same. Rat and milk snakes are constrictors; they eat small rodents. We're never overrun with chipmunks and, at least during warm weather, our house stays mouse-free. That alone seems a fair trade-off. And most ringneck snakes are so small robins seem to consider them the ultimate earthworm.
I also just like knowing the snakes are there. I appreciate every bit of wildness I can add to my backyard.
Pieces of plywood tell another story. Wood insulates the ground, preventing it from drying out and getting too hot. Consequently, reptiles avoid these areas. I've never found a snake under plywood. I have, however, often found toads and salamanders here. Amphibians lose moisture rapidly through their thin skin, so they need a cooler, moister daytime environment. Once I found a large black salamander under some plywood. It was about seven inches long, and its body was sprinkled with small white flecks.
Docile critter: When I picked it up it writhed a bit, but was quite docile. It did, however, exude a slimy pale liquid on my hands. I checked a field guide and discovered I was holding -- surprise, surprise -- a & quot;slimy salamander. & quot; Beware of the slimy secretion, the book warned. When it dries, it adheres to the skin and takes days to wear off. It's true.
Slimy salamanders belong to a curious family of amphibians, the Plethodontidae or lungless salamanders. About 200 species are found worldwide. All get their oxygen by & quot;breathing & quot; through their thin moist skin and the linings of their mouth and throat. Because their oxygen supply is limited by the lack of lungs, plethodon salamanders have low metabolic rates and typically move slowly.
Though small and primitive compared to many other vertebrates, slimy salamanders do not breed until they are four or five years old. From late spring to mid summer, females deposit grape-like clusters of six to 12 moist fertilized eggs in underground burrows or in rotting logs. The eggs hatch in late summer or early fall, but young are usually not seen until the following spring.
Another lungless salamander I often find under scraps of wood and rotting logs is the aptly named redback salamander. It just might be the most common vertebrate found in deciduous woods. .
Backyard habitat improvements to encourage snakes, toads, and salamanders are probably not be for everyone, but for those who are so inclined, you now know how to put those scraps of plywood, downspout, and sheet metal to good use.