Releasing smooth green snakes: A small piece in Chicago area’s wild big picture
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As Gail Vanderpoel released her second smooth green snake Wednesday, she said, ‘‘I am going to name this one Tom.’’
That brought smiles and clapping at the first release in the Chicago area of smooth green snakes on private protected land.
Her late husband, Tom, who died Aug. 8, 2017, was renowned for continuing the family tradition in Citizens for Conservation. CFC, a Barrington conservation group with 850 members/volunteers, was founded 47 years ago with the mission statement of ‘‘saving living space for living things through protection, restoration and stewardship of land, conservation of natural resources and education.’’
As each smooth green snake was released, it slithered down the vegetation and almost instantly disappeared, blending in with near-perfect camouflage below. It was really something to watch. I crouched a couple of times and, even eye-level to the ground, couldn’t pick them out.
Two batches of 11 snakes (six females, five males) were released into two chicken-wire enclosures, 6 feet by 6 feet. The tops of the enclosures were left open so insects could fly in. Smooth green snakes, small and thin, eat crickets, small grasshoppers, smooth caterpillars and spiders.
When I asked what ate the snakes, Allison Sacerdote-Velat, the curator of herpetology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, said: ‘‘Just about everything: bigger snakes, robins, praying mantis.’’
The release was part of the Barrington Greenway Initiative, an ambitious cross-jurisdiction project connecting 14,000 acres of key habitat in Lake, Cook, McHenry and Kane counties. Partners include CFC, Lake County Forest Preserves, Audubon Great Lakes, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Bobolink Foundation and Friends of the Forest Preserves.
The release was at a CFC site. In her surveys, Sacerdote-Velat found other snakes were using this as a sort of snake nursery, which encouraged her, and it was high-quality prairie.
‘‘Don’t release the site name,’’ she said. ‘‘There is a lot of poaching.’’
I asked her why releasing the small snakes mattered. She responded with the rivet-popper hypothesis. That’s the analogy developed by Paul Ehrlich and his wife/colleague, Anne, that some rivets can be removed from an airplane wing, but when one too many is taken out, the plane crashes. The same applies to natural diversity.
Considering the threats confronting the Endangered Species Act, I find the rivet-popper hypothesis particularly chilling.
By contrast, I found the release of the snakes almost heartwarming. The released snakes, mostly from nests found in the field, were hatched last year.
Sacerdote-Velat said that when the landscape changes, the smooth green snakes lose their masking cover and stick out like a sore thumb. Obviously, intensive land use makes survival difficult.
They have an added challenge. Unlike some small snakes, smooth green snakes produce eggs, averaging 5.5 per female.
Sacerdote-Velat said the snakes will build scent trails and develop fidelity to this general area. Once out of the release pens, she expects them to stay within 40 to 50 meters. They will be monitored twice a week.
‘‘I look forward to seeing one out here,’’ Jim Vanderpoel, Tom’s brother, said after the release.
‘‘Even if we see four or five, it is good,’’ Sacerdote-Velat said.