Category Archives: Nature Notes

How to Tell a Garter from a Ribbon Snake

Sitting on a rock in the hot sun is a yellow-striped snake soaking in the sun. With only a glance before it slithers away, it’s hard to determine what type of snake it was. The yellow lining is a feature on both Eastern Garter Snakes and Eastern Ribbon Snakes. So how do you tell them apart? Learn more about how to differentiate these two reptiles. 

Eastern Garter Snake

Two garter snakes coming out of leaves on a plant
Eastern Garter Snakes © Michael Onyon

Sometimes mistakenly called a “garden snake,” garter snakes get their name from a female under garment, the garter belt. They sport long, yellow stripes down the length of their green, brown, or black bodies. Sometimes, their stripes are not well defined and appear to be more checkered than a prominent line.

Although they can get large with an average of about 20-22″ in length (and can grow up to 54″ long), there is no need to worry: garters are generally shy and avoid people. 

Garter Snake coiled in fallen leaves
Eastern Garter Snake

As one of the most common snakes, they can be found just about anywhere, including in gardens, forests, and parks. These snakes are so common, they’re even the Massachusetts state reptile.  

Eastern Ribbon Snake

Ribbon snake on a rock
Eastern Ribbon Snake © Kathy Diamontopoulos

Like the garter snake, ribbon snakes have long yellow stripes against their dark body, but there are a couple of key differences. Eastern Ribbon Snakes have a white mark just in front of the eye, which is absent in the garter snake. Additionally, ribbon snakes have a more slender body and longer tails, which account for about one-third of their bodies.

Ribbon snakes prefer to live near wetlands and waterbodies and can even be found swimming for food. They, too, are shy and nonvenomous, but typically harder to find.  

Ribbon snake moving through branches
Eastern Ribbon Snake © Danielle Rizzo

More Massachusetts Snakes

Ready to learn more about snakes? Visit our snake wildlife page to learn more about other species of snakes found in Massachusetts. If you come across a snake in your outdoor explorations, take a picture and tag us on Instagram or Facebook.

3 Shy Creatures of Massachusetts

There are some species of wildlife we can see almost every day–from a rabbit munching on plants to a squirrel climbing a tree. Others, like the bobcat, fisher, or coyote, are a bit more elusive. Learn more about each of these shy creatures and what to do if you do encounter one. 

Only Wild Cat in Massachusetts 

Lynx rufus, Bobcat © Scott Lewis

Bobcats, marked by their short “bobbed” tail, live in a range of habitats, with the highest populations in the central and western regions of Massachusetts. They’re roughly twice the size of a domestic house cat (from 15 to 35 pounds) but still smaller than most other wild cats found in the US.

Even though these cats are very wary of humans, small pets, livestock, and chickens can be on their diet. If there’s sightings in your area, be sure to keep your animals in a secure pen or indoors at night. If you see one in the wild, make sure you keep your distance and appreciate them from afar.

Weasels That Don’t Actually Fish 

Pekania pennanti, Fisher © Scott Eggimann

Despite being called “fisher cats,” fishers aren’t feline nor do they catch fish. Fishers look like most other weasels, with a sleek body (from 32-40 inches) and a long tail that makes up a third of their total length. These predators are equipped with retractable claws to help them hunt on the ground and roost in tall trees.

In the late 19th century, fishers were almost completely eliminated from southern New England because of forest destruction and unregulated trapping. After reintroduction to Massachusetts in the 1950s, fishers are now widespread across the state.

They prefer to keep their distance from humans but can attack free-roaming domestic birds, cats, and rabbits. They are also one of the only natural predators to eat porcupines. To help avoid fisher conflicts, make sure to clean the seeds below birdfeeders (which may attract small rodents), secure your garbage, and keep your pets and livestock enclosed at night.

Not Your Average Canine 

Canis latrans, Coyote © Nancy Graupner

Eastern Coyotes are a resilient species that have adapted to live in almost any landscape, including cities. These canines look like medium-sized dogs (23-26 inches tall) but have longer and thicker fur.

You can hear coyotes howling and yipping at night all year round, as they don’t hibernate. Coyotes are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will eat whatever food is available, including small animals, birds, garbage, and compost.  

Although the chances of being attacked by a coyote are slim, there are some simple precautions to keep you and your pets safe. Never approach or feed a coyote, and keep your garbage secured to prevent access. If you do come across a coyote, make lots of noise to scare it away.  

Protecting All Wildlife 

Mammals like bobcats, fisher, and coyotes may not be seen on a daily basis, but they still play a critical role in balancing their ecosystem by keeping other animal populations in check.

To learn more about how Mass Audubon is protecting habitats to support all wildlife, including the shy ones, visit our Action Agenda, or donate to support our efforts.