Western Fox Snake
Pictured above: Fox Snakes are occasionally confused with Milk Snakes. However, the blotches of a Fox Snake are solid black, not outlined with black (like the Milk Snake's blotches). Note the rounded pupil (top right) indicative of all non-venomous snakes.
Description: Adult Western Fox Snakes can reach lengths of 36 to 54 inches. Their heads are usually a solid brown or tan, possibly with faint markings. They have beige or brownish bodies that are dorsally covered with elongated, oval blotches of solid color (pictured above). Their ventral surface (or belly) is cream or pale-yellow with many irregularly placed, rectangular markings (also pictured above). Western Fox Snakes are members of the family Colubridae and sub-family Colubrinae, which includes several non-venomous snake species found in Wisconsin. Within the state, they are most closely related to snakes like the Black Rat Snake, with which they share the same genus (Elaphe).
Habitat/Ecology: Fox Snakes are said to prefer river bottom forests, or prairies with rocky crevices for shelter. I have rarely found them far from a water source of some kind and have frequently encountered them near river backwaters and wetlands. Much of their time is spent basking or hunting rodents, such as mice, voles and gophers. Erik Wild (Ph.D.; UW-Stevens Point) told me about witnessing a very large individual basking on top of a musk rat mound in Bayfield Co. and I would suspect small musk rats may be consumed as well. Western Fox Snakes are constrictors, meaning they wrap around their prey and squeeze it until stops breathing, before consuming it. Because they eat primarily rodents (which damage crops and spread disease), they are beneficial to humans.
Fox snakes emerge from hibernation in late April and May. It is reported that mating occurs before individuals disperse from over-wintering dens. Eggs are usually laid in late June and hatch in approximately 60 days. While gravid, females are often found on black top roads, taking advantage of the warmth to help incubate their eggs. Unfortunately, I have found several gravid females who were killed trying to warm themselves in such a way. Each were holding 13 or more eggs.
These snakes hibernate in rock crevices and fissures that go below the frost line. They are also occasionally reported to hibernate in the foundations of old buildings and abandoned wells. In fact, Vogt (1981) reported finding 68 fox snakes in the spring hibernating in an abandoned well (many of which were actually underwater), and discovered that some of these individuals returned to this "den" in October. I was once told by a landowner in north central Wisconsin that he visited his cabin in late September one year to find a snake sitting in the corner of the cabin's kitchen. Unfortunately, this story was accompanied by a picture of a decapitated fox snake sprawled lifelessly across the floor. This, in conjunction with other stories I've been told about large snakes being witnessed near homes in the wooded areas of Wisconsin, leads me to believe that they can be found in forested suburban areas located on the peripheries of more urbanized landscapes (such as the Wausau area).
Remarks: Western Fox Snakes are sometimes called "pine snakes" or mistaken for Bullsnakes, and Milk Snakes (to compare fox snakes and bullsnakes, click here). They are very shy, sluggish snakes that will first attempt to escape if threatened. However, if cornered, Fox Snakes will coil up, hiss, and vibrate their tails against the ground. This behavior, though meant to deter predators, can lead to them being mistaken for rattlesnakes and needlessly killed. If captured or molested, these snakes can also deliver a painful bite. Yet, if left alone they pose no threat to humans.
I have encountered Western Fox Snakes on the south side of La Crosse. Unfortunately, one of the individuals that I found there in early 2001 was later killed by fisherman. I have also witnessed them in nearby Winona County (Minnesota). Although they are often described as aggressive, I have never encountered a Fox Snake that has acted aggressively towards me. Although they are not plentiful, I have found Fox Snakes more often than any other large snake in western Wisconsin.