Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #11


Today’s Treasure Hunt is about snakes. Unhappily, snakes have a really bad reputation. To start with, the word “snake” is firmly embedded in our language and used by millions of people who have never even seen a snake! We call someone who is treacherous or worthless a snake, and when an individual is untrustworthy, that person becomes a “snake in the grass”. This story is about one of these amazing creatures, on and off More Mesa. At the end of the story you can discover why “snake” is a “bad word”.

Gopher Snake is a Pretty Big Snake … but Harmless

There are five different species of Gopher Snakes in California. In Santa Barbara we are at the northern edge of the range of the San Diego Gopher Snake. Even more interesting is that three of our Channel Islands are the only location for the Santa Cruz Gopher Snake … an endemic species found only on these islands. This Treasure Hunt will be devoted to the most abundant and conspicuous member of local snake fauna and the one most often found on More Mesa, the large San Diego Gopher Snake.

Recent anecdotal evidence indicates that Gopher Snakes seem to be in abundance on More Mesa this year. And they can be intimidating if you run across one, because Gopher Snake adult sizes range from 3 to 8 feet. Within their grassland habitats, these animals live a solitary existence in underground burrows, both during hibernation (October through March), and for a large fraction of the time when they are our and about as well.

Gopher Snake and Gopher Hole on More Mesa Photo by Chris Brem
Gopher Snake and Gopher Hole on More Mesa
Photo by Chris Brem

Peak activity for adults (3 years and older) is early May and June. During this period, they reproduce by laying 10-20 eggs in loose soil or unused burrows. Decaying vegetation and warm soils will then incubate the eggs for about 80 days. During the period when they are eating,
Gopher Snakes prey on small mammals (rodents primarily, and aptly enough, gophers) as well as bird’s eggs. Therefore, as a species, they are extremely important in keeping the rodent populations in check and maintaining local ecosystems. These large snakes are not venomous, but “constrictors”. That is, they squeeze their prey by overwhelming the circulatory system and preventing blood from reaching the brain. The whole thing happens in seconds.

Leave Them Be

In keeping with their lifeway, you will see Gopher Snakes in summer, when they rest in the sun on More Mesa’s trails. In other areas they lie out on roads and are often run over by vehicles. Unhappily there are also many instances where closer snakehikers deliberately kill Gopher Snakes because they are mistaken for Rattlesnakes. (As far as I know there has never been a report of a Rattlesnake on More Mesa.) Both species have similar coloration, markings and large heads. In addition, they are both known to hiss loudly, vibrate their tails and flatten their heads when threatened … a set of defense mechanisms designed to ward off potential predators. In the case of the Gopher Snake, this display is a type of mimicry, where they, a harmless species, mimic a harmful species … a Rattlesnake. However, while mimicry may be helpful in keeping predators away, it can cause problems for Gopher Snakes. Humans decide to kill them thinking they are venomous Rattlers. Instead, those who come upon a snake should take a quick look. A few ways to tell the two species apart is that Gopher Snakes are much longer and slimmer. Further, even though they can make a repetitive sound with their tails, they don’t have rattles. If it is obvious that the snake, whether it is a Rattler or a Gopher Snake, feels threatened, the wisest and most humane course of action is to simply go away. Once it figures out that it is not being threatened, the snake will also just go away.

Bottom Line

snake head shotThere is no need to exterminate Gopher Snakes. These animals, while they can be intimidating because of their size and may look a bit like Rattlesnakes, represent no threat. Gopher Snakes are nonvenomous. However, if you provoke it, a Gopher Snake may bite and the bite may hurt. As for the big picture regarding venomous snakes in the United States, recent statistics show that five to six thousand people a year are bitten by them. Five of those people die because they did not seek medical care.

Shedding  … Donning a New Skin

Snakes shed their skin because they are just like all other animals. For mammals like us, this is an ongoing process, but for snakes it’s a bit more periodic, dramatic and noticeable, mainly because the skin comes off in one piece. If you look at the photo of the snake shed I found on More Mesa, you will see that it came off almost in one piece … inside out!snakeskin (This skin is in 2 pieces because I carried it in my jacket pocket to show More Mesa visitors and it received some rough treatment.) The shedding process is necessary to accommodate growth and to remove parasites on the old skin. Since the skin does not grow with the individual, as ours does, the snake has to do something entirely different. It starts by growing a new layer of skin under the old one. When the new layer is complete, the snake removes the old one. It’s just like taking off a sock. First it makes a small tear in the old skin, somewhere on the head area, by rubbing against something rough. Then it slithers out of the old skin and leaves it behind and it is usually inside out. Snakes shed their skin, on average, two to four times a year, varying with age and species. However, young snakes that are actively growing may shed every two weeks … compared to older snakes who may only shed twice a year.

Epilogue … Why Are We Afraid of Snakes?

snake-appleWhen I started researching this Treasure Hunt, I was intrigued by why it is that humans are afraid of snakes.  My first thought was to blame it on Adam and Eve. But it turns out, that it is in our nature to be afraid of snakes; that is, it is embedded in our DNA. Research over the past 10 years has given us some clues to the answer. In the beginning, early primates, and then humans, developed pattern recognition schemes for predators like lions, bears etc. But snakes don’t look like these kinds of predators … they look like sticks. Furthermore, they do not move like other predators … they slither. This would imply that the existing pattern recognition algorithms didn’t work. Then evolution took over, and humans who figured out they should fear snakes would have been at an advantage for both survival and reproduction. One clear indicator of this advantage was highlighted in a recent study. In that work, researchers found that both adults and children could detect images of snakes among a variety of non-threatening objects more quickly than they could pinpoint frogs, flowers or caterpillars. The implication is that we humans can identify snakes much more quickly than other things. This piece of our DNA is the reason that people who live in industrialized countries fear snakes … even when they have never ever seen one!

Instead of fearing them, watch snakes from afar (or near, if that is safe) and marvel at their coloration, how they move and, yes, how very beautiful many of them are. Then you also might be blessed enough to a carry a story like the one below in your memory banks.

pink rattlesnake
Pink Rattlesnake
Photo from NPS

Many years ago, at the end of a day on another glorious trip down the Colorado River, we reached camp and I jumped out to tie up the boat. “Over there” our guide suggested. He was pointing to one of the ubiquitous tamarisks. I hustled over and came to an abrupt stop about two feet away from the tie-up, completely stunned. I stared in disbelief at the biggest and most beautiful Rattlesnake I had ever seen! It was huge, pink, coiled around the tree, and had obviously been awakened by all our commotion. “Hurry up!” came the command from the boat. I announced the presence of our pink sleepyhead, retreated to “afar” and the guides took over. They dug out a “snake stick” from the hold of the boat, put the snake carefully in a sack and then released it into the water so it could find a quieter sleeping spot further down river. It was a day I will never forget!

If you see a snake, enjoy it, but behave as we must in our world today. That is … STAY SAFE!

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #10

gulls with chicksPrologue

Our Treasure Hunts usually end with some suggestions on where a treasure might be found. However, in this hunt, it’s incredibly easy! Western Gulls are all over town … the harbor, the beaches, Costco, McDonalds and every other place where food scraps can be easily appropriated … not that Western Gulls should be eating this kind of stuff! Read on to learn where Western Gulls can be found in a more natural habitat.

Western Gull, Big and Beautiful

The large, dark-backed Western Gull is found only on the Pacific Coast from Washington to Baja, and is seldom seen far from the ocean. This distribution is very limited compared to most North American gulls, and since we are on the ocean, Western Gulls are all over Santa Barbara.

gull yearsThe Western Gull is a “four-year” bird; that is, it takes four years to reach adulthood and breeding status. The photo on the right shows the changes as the bird progresses to adulthood. It is easy to see that plumage varies and takes on more and more of the adult plumage characteristics in each successive year.

Most of the Western Gulls we encounter here in town are full-grown adults … bold, raucous and fearless around humans. But when the adults are not dining on French fries and other human food, they (and the juveniles) are at sea consuming all manner of aquatic life including fish, shell fish, eggs and young of other birds and what they can scavenge around sea lion colonies. And they, like many other sea birds, are clever thieves … stealing food from other sea birds. In short, they are very “opportunistic feeders”.

Once Again … Procreation

While the photo above shows the progression to full adult size and plumage, the whole process starts with the nesting period and the chicks. The chicks are cute and it is … after all … Spring. Western Gulls nest in colonies on off shore islands, rocks and on islands inside estuaries. We are especially blessed because of our proximity to the Channel Islands, where large colonies are found on both Santa Barbara Island, with 7,000 nesting pairs, and on Anacapa Island, with 10,000 nesting pairs. The modest nests are built on the ground by finding a depression and filling it with vegetation, feathers and whatever else is available. Several, but most often 3 eggs, are laid.

gull scrapbook

These grayish eggs … with dark “polka dot” spots, are incubated, by both the male and the female, for about a month. At that time, the chick will hatch with the aid of a small projection at the end of its beak. This projection, or “egg tooth”, has two jobs to do. First, it breaks the sac surrounding the chick inside the egg allowing the nearly born chick to access oxygen stored between the sac and the shell. When that is done, the youngster now has enough oxygen to tackle the second, and more difficult task … to crack the shell and emerge. With its work done, the egg tooth falls off when the chick is 2-3 days old.

Mom and Dad Have Big Jobs


In the above photos you can see that the newborn looks like a down covered version of the

Showing off the "red spot"
Showing off the “red spot”

egg … grayish with the same blackish “polka dots”. And it needs to be fed … for up to three months! Like humans who are attuned to the vocalizations and fussiness of their offspring when they are hungry, the Western Gull, like many other gulls, has the ability to recognize the needs of their offspring as well. When the chick is hungry, it signals by touching a red dot on the lower jaw of an adult, who will then regurgitate a meal for the hungry chick. Further, the color red, is programmed into the DNA of the gulls, so no other color spot will do. This conclusion was such a scientific breakthrough, that fifty years ago the research on this signaling approach won a noble prize for the Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen.


Nests with a View
Nests with a View

Just like we have to teach our kids to walk and drive a car, adult gulls must teach their offspring to fly. The downy birth coat will soon be replaced by feathers, and the fledgling will be able to fly after 6-7 weeks. These flying lessons are relatively risk free when the nest is on the ground. The fledgling can only crash and fall a few soft and vegetated feet. However, I once observed an adult pair who had chosen a very safe nest location in a small crevasse on a high cliff. With many loud vocalizations, they had urged the youngster to the edge and then squawked their instructions to fly. The fledgling approached the edge, looked down the cliff face to the ocean hundreds of feet below, turned toward its parents, and gave them a look that clearly stated “You gotta be kidding!” Then it hustled back to the nest. I watched this attempted flying lesson repeated over and over until the boat had to leave. I’m sure the kid eventually “got it” and I smiled all the way back to the harbor.

Why have I spent so much time on this part of the gull life cycle? Because it is happening as I write … a three week period when you will see nothing like it without traveling to far distant places around the globe. In a non-pandemic year, I would be on a boat to Anacapa Island to look at the thousands of nests, adults and chicks! It is an incredible sight and one that happens right here in our very own back yard.

And Up North …

The numbers of Western Gulls in the Bay area are dwindling because their natural food supply is not as reliable as it has been in the past. And scavenging has also become more difficult. Gulls and other birds have historically used dump sites to scavenge for discarded (and unhealthy) human food remains. To discourage this practice, these areas are now deliberately being covered over more rapidly than they were in the past.
As a result, Western gulls have become a serious nuisance for baseball parks in the Bay area. For 20 years, both the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics have had thousands of gulls flying over both Oracle Park and the Oakland Coliseum. Originally, they came after the game was over, but they are now arriving as early as the 7th inning. They swarm the field, pooping on fans, making loud raucous noises, and distracting the players. When the games are over, they dine on leftovers of stadium food discarded in the stands … with a definite penchant for nachos and garlic fries.

gull stadium

How do the birds know when games are about to end? Nobody knows! About ten years ago the gulls made a hasty exit from the San Francisco stadium when a Red-tailed Hawk showed up. But the hawk decided it did not particularly like the neighborhood and left. Back came the gulls in full force. A falconer is one answer, and the Oakland stadium has done just that … but it is extremely expensive. Oracle Park also tried to lure a pair of Peregrine Falcons into making the stadium its permanent home, but that effort failed. Several other attempts at making kites that looked like raptors also failed. As far as I know, the ritual invasion of the Western Gulls is still going on. Makes one wonder if perhaps this brand of scavenging might not be so fruitful if humans properly disposed of their own food trash?

Most of the photos in this Treasure Hunt were taken by Donley Olson and Larry Jon Friesen. The baseball photo was from the Mercury News in San Jose.