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Regional Interests

SFO’s Resident Snake Caretaker Talks San Francisco Garter Snakes (And Poop!)

Danger noodles. Nope ropes. Slither strings. Whatever you call them, however you feel about them, a few minutes listening to Natalie Reeder talk about snakes might change your perception of them forever.

“Snakes are the ultimate underdogs,” the wildlife biologist says. “They live on the ground, they have no arms and no legs, and a lot of people hate them. But here in Northern California, it’s very rare for somebody to be bit, even by a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are very not aggressive. When you touch them, they’re sort of squishy. They’re a little fat and lazy.”

When not talking smack about the waistlines of rattlesnakes, Reeder is in charge of keeping a close eye on the thousands of garter, gopher, yellow-bellied racer and ringneck snakes that live on a plot of land near the San Francisco International Airport. The 180-acre habitat is owned by the airport and dedicated specifically to providing snek frens with somewhere safe to hang out. (Reeder is purposely vague about its exact location, lest a bunch of annoying humans show up.) The snake recovery action plan was the brainchild of SFO, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Water Board, and a variety of airport consultants. Reeder herself acted as a consultant on the project for “four or five years” before moving into her full-time position with SFO six years ago.

The preservation project has been working well too. At last count, there were 1,300 San Francisco garter snakes (thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia, if you’re nasty) living on the property—not bad for an endangered species.

A tribute to San Francisco garter snakes near the Louis Sutter playground in McLaren Park. (Johnny Dismal)

San Francisco garter snakes—easy to identify because of their turquoise and red coloring—are endangered for a variety of reasons. Reeder explains that habitat loss and drought are the primary causes, poaching has historically been a problem, and that domestic cats pose an additional threat on top of wild predators like foxes and raccoons. The snakes’ situation is not helped by the smallness and specificity of region they live in. “They only live on the San Francisco peninsula, a little bit in the far north of Santa Cruz County, and in San Mateo County,” Reeder says. “It’s hard for people to find places to live in San Mateo County!”

Reeder loves garter snakes so much, she describes being bitten by them as “really more adorable than it is scary,” and says that it feels more like a sharp scratch than a bite. (Their teeth are “almost flexible” and not designed for chewing apparently). Reeder also harbors a remarkably tolerant view of being deuced on by them.

“They poop as a defense,” Reeder says via Facetime, live and direct from the field o’ cute fangs. “So almost always, when you handle them, they will poop. And their poop is kind of like bird poop. It’s sort of like a mix of urine and feces. It is not a pleasant smell, but I imagine it tastes pretty bad and would deter a predator from eating them.”

It’s not just defecating garter snakes that benefit from SFO’s little sanctuary either.

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“I mean, there’s definitely more animals out here than I could ever know—especially if you take into account insects and things like that,” Reeder says, noting that the endangered Ridgway’s Rail bird lives nearby. “We’ve also got alligator lizards. A very small number of occasional fence lizards. We have a couple species of salamander—slender salamander and arboreal salamander. We’ve got deer, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, possums, skunks, cats, squirrels. We’ve got Sierra tree frogs and our threatened California red-legged frogs.”

Reeder means threatened in terms of their existence as a species. But the red-legged frogs are also regularly threatened by their bunkmates, the garter snakes, for whom they are food. (A snek-snack, if you will.)

“Oh, they love the red-legged frogs!” Reeder declares. “They’ll eat any frog that’s the right size though. So, smaller snakes will eat more baby frogs and tree frogs which are smaller, and tadpoles. And then the adult snakes can eat the larger adult frogs. Garter snakes will swim in the water and catch frogs. And if there’s a pond that’s drying up, and there’s very little water left, they like to gather there. Especially if there’s a bunch of frog tadpoles and little baby frogs that are all concentrated in one remaining pool. That’s an easy meal for them.”

A red-legged frog, attempting to look less delicious. (John Kunna/ Courtesy of Natalie Reeder)

Reeder is careful to note that she doesn’t always see snakes on her visits to the wildlife site.

“They’re very secretive,” she says. “They keep to themselves, so it’s pretty unpredictable. A lot of snakes kind of sleep for most of the year. They’ll go underground and just do the snake version of hibernation, and then just come out and try to eat as much as they can for a couple months in the spring and summer.”

That’s why Reeder spends most days out in the field during the summer, through the end of October. She also regularly conducts bird, frog and snake surveys. She’s excited to start her five-year snake count in March 2022.

“I mean, I always say that I’m so lucky just to get to see the sun go across the sky,” Reeder says, when asked about her favorite part of the job. “You know, just to be outside and experience that natural cycle. But then, I’m just always looking for animals. That’s been my whole career and most of my life. So finding, you know, a cool new spider or seeing some coyote poop, or a deer track, or snake. You know, that’s kind of my favorite thing—looking around for something new.”

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