Lifestyle

Tuesday, May 28 2013 09:29 AM

Pen in Hand: California Kingsnakes - handsome, harmless and widespread

Related Photos

Kingsnakes are competent hunters that consume large numbers of mice and other rodents. Photo by Jon Hammond

A California Kingsnake in an old grapevine. Kingsnakes often climb shrubs and small trees in search of bird nests, and Brewer's Blackbirds, which often build nests fairly low to the ground, are particularly strident in harassing Kingsnakes that they encounter. Photo by Jon Hammond

A baby Kingsnake looks just like an adult, though the colors are often more striking. Photo by Jon Hammond

A pair of California Kingsnakes mating last week. Photo by Jon Hammond

One of the most common snakes in the Tehachapi Mountains is a docile, non-venomous constrictor known as a California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae). These attractive snakes are typically found with alternating shiny bands of black and white, especially the young ones, while older snakes may have more muted colors of dark brown and cream.

Some of my earliest memories of holding snakes involve California Kingsnakes, since they tend to be much more tolerant of being handled than our equally common Gopher Snakes - both species can strike, of course, but Gopher Snakes will often bite and Kingsnakes seldom do.

Kingsnakes are opportunistic feeders who will eat rodents and other small mammals, lizards, snakes, frogs and other amphibians, birds, eggs, and more. It is their ability to eat other snakes, including rattlesnakes, that earned them the name "Kingsnake," and they will swallow snakes that are only slightly smaller than themselves.

They are apparently resistant though perhaps not totally immune to rattlesnake venom, and Kingsnakes are considerably stronger than rattlesnakes - because they kill by constricting rather than with venom, Kingsnakes are sleek bundles of ropy muscles. They will eat a rattlesnake when given the chance, but do not specifically hunt them, and you can find Kingsnakes and rattlesnakes occupying the same small area of habitat.

My brother George came out of his house last week to find two large Kingsnakes entwined together in the midst of mating in his yard (see photo on this page). Actually happening upon wild snakes in the midst of their brief coitus is rare, but seeing Kingsnakes at our place is not unusual - we have a number of them living here, and individuals can be identified by anomalies in their band pattern, which they keep all their lives even while growing and shedding their old skin many times. One of the breeding snakes that we saw was one that my brother calls "ol' Two and Twelve" because the second and twelfth black bands don't completely encircle its body, and we've been seeing this individual snake for nine years now.

California Kingsnakes are found in many different habitat types, and the Tehachapi Mountains are considered the highest elevation where they are found in the southern portion of their range in areas more than 6,100 feet above sea level. While they typically don't strike when you pick them up, when alarmed Kingsnakes (especially females) may excrete musk and fecal matter so that you get this unpleasant-smelling material on your hands while holding them. Captive snakes that are used to being held rarely engage in this antisocial behavior.

Though California Kingsnakes typically have the black-and-white banded pattern, there are many different naturally occurring color patterns and morphs, including lengthwise stripes, speckling and many other variations. Because of the ease of handling and keeping these snakes, California Kings are one of the most popular snake species to have as pets, and they have been captive-bred to create even more color and pattern variations.

The California Kingsnake is a widespread and important resident of ecological communities throughout the Tehachapi Mountains, and I encourage you to avoid running over or harming these easygoing snakes.

Have a good week.

JON HAMMOND has written for the Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to: tehachapimtnlover@gmail.com.

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