While searching between my 3-D archery targets for morel mushrooms last week, I instead spotted a 30-inch snake sunning itself atop grass and fallen leaves, its body a slithering series of gray-brown S-curves.
Yes, I know no poisonous snakes live in central Wisconsin.
Yes, I know snakes have more to fear from humans than vice versa.
And yes, I know snakes are one of God’s creatures and fill a niche in woodland ecosystems.
To scare would-be threats, the eastern hognose snake flares its neck, resembling a deadly cobra.
But in that instant, so what? You think I cared?
“Snake!,” my brain screamed.
Too late. My reflexes had already launched me about 2 feet to the left, where I reunited with my heart, which scares even faster.
What the …?
The author crossed paths with this eastern hognose snake in his archery range in the woods behind his home in central Wisconsin.
After calming myself, I studied the snake’s head to confirm it wasn’t wedge-shaped and wide at the jaws.
Whew. It looked sleek. It wasn’t venomous.
With fear fading and curiosity returning, I circled ahead and studied my camera angles. I had never seen a snake like this before, especially not in my backyard woods’ archery range, where I’ve been practicing nearly 20 years. The snake was resting halfway between my 40- and 50-yard targets.
No longer worried, I eased within four feet of it. Its neck and body suddenly puffed out wide and thick, making it look like a copperhead snake I encountered years ago in Virginia. Then it raised its head 3 inches off the ground and fanned its neck like a cobra.
Eastern hognose snakes prey primarily on toads, which they hunt in daylight.
It held that pose as I photographed it from several angles. When it started gliding away minutes later, I trotted ahead, causing it to stop by a stump, curl into itself and fan its neck while resting its head atop a stick.
When I had enough pictures, I continued my futile search for morels. When I returned home before noon I emailed snake photos and ID requests to my friend Mark Endris, a retired fisheries/amphibians biologist; and Rebecca Schroeder, who works for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ bureau of endangered resources.
Faster than you can say “Google,” they both emailed the same answer. It was an eastern hognose snake, aka, the “puff adder,” “spread adder,” “puffer snake,” “blower snake” or “blow snake.” Although I had never seen one before, they’re classified as “common” in Wisconsin. They’re also found across much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States.
Eastern hognose snakes fake their own death if they can't scare away potential threats.
Although it has fangs in the back of its mouth and mild venom, it’s no puff adder, which is a deadly African snake. No, the eastern hognose won’t hurt you, but it has enough acting skills to scare most folks away.
As I discovered, it first puffs up to look like a bad hombre, and then makes like a cobra with its neck and head. I must look friendly because my snake did no further acting. In many cases, though, the hognose hisses nonstop and makes false strikes. But when striking, its mouth remains closed.
If hissing and faking strikes don’t make you flee, the hognose launches into an elaborate death act. It writhes as if in pain, opens its mouth, rolls out its tongue, salivates, gets dirt in its mouth, barfs, craps, rolls onto its back and lies still. If you pick it up, it hangs limp.
But it’s easily fooled. If you lay it down on its stomach, it again rolls onto its back and resumes playing possum. Hey, come on. Don’t laugh at its stupidity. It’s a snake. Its brain is about the size of an olive pit. It doesn’t realize it can play dead right-side up, like a drunk frat boy.
By now you’re asking why the eastern hognose has fangs if it’s not going to bite you. Well, its fangs aren’t for people; they’re for toads, its favorite food.
This snake hunts toads in their burrows during daylight, using its upturned nose to root them out. Toads try to save themselves by inflating like a balloon. The hognose doesn’t care. It just slides the toad down to those rear fangs and then pops Toady’s skin like a birthday balloon.
Poof! Dinner is served.
Although the hognose prefers toads, it will also eat frogs, salamanders, small mammals, birds, bird eggs, insects, lizards, smaller snakes, snake eggs and parts of dead animals. What? You were expecting it to like tofu? The hognose is no vegan.
When confronted, eastern hognose snakes often hiss and make mock strikes. They keep their mouth closed when striking, however.
I learned all this after the fact, of course. In the meantime, I showed one of my photos to my wife, Penny. After sucking in what sounded like her final breath, she asked, “You saw it where?”
“Out between two of my 3-D targets,” I said. “And about 10 yards from the yellow raspberry patch.”
I should have lied. I should have told her I saw it three years ago during a trip to Tennessee or South Carolina, but just now looked at the photos.
“I’m never going back there again,” she said.
I assured her that she had nothing to fear from snakes in central Wisconsin. Later, after learning its identity, I tried again to calm her. I even read her a quote from a Wisconsin writer who’s seen a few eastern hognose snakes: “Watch it from a distance with renewed interest and less fear,” I quoted.
Pffft! Yeah right. Who was I trying to kid? As I had just demonstrated, we do all that after we stop running, look around self-consciously, and check under the seat for faulty plumbing.