National Wildlife Refuge System
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Yellow-crowned night herons
Kile Kucher, a Lansing graduate student, holds up an Eastern Fox Snake at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Saginaw.
Credit: Joanna Rogers, USFWS

Slither This Way


It may not be your idea of a dream assignment, but it suits Kile R. Kucher. The graduate student at Central Michigan University is deep into his second year of field work at nearby Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge following a species that the state lists as threatened and that the refuge hopes to better integrate into its habitat management program. In other words, says Kucher, “I’m tromping around in marsh water that’s sometimes up to my waist or higher tracking Eastern fox snakes.”

The boldly colored snakes can grow to five and a half feet or longer and are sometimes mistaken for timber rattlers or copperheads, but, unlike those species, Kucher says, fox snakes “are extremely docile; they rarely strike or attempt to bite me when I pick them up.”

Why would he want to do that? To tag and release them. Or bag some for sending to a Lansing veterinarian who surgically implants them with radio transmitters that help Kucher track their movements.

Refuge manager Steve Kahl first dangled the idea before Kucher. “We manage the refuge habitat primarily for waterfowl,” says Kahl, “but we knew we had fox snakes here, and they were protected by the state. Other than that, we knew very little about what habitats are important to them, where they overwinter, where they nest, if the population is going up or down or if they’re reproducing. We wanted to do some more investigating to contribute to the snake conservation.”

Already, the project has produced some surprises:

  • On density: “I was pleasantly surprised to find so many of them,” says Kucher. “I caught 50 the first year, and only two of them re–captures. I’ve probably found 20 this year on the refuge.”
  • On over–wintering: says Kahl, “One of the most surprising things was that of the 14 snakes with transmitters, most overwintered in the same location; two big shale piles from the coal mining era. Most had to swim a quarter mile across the Shiawassee River to get to the shale piles.”
  • On hardiness: “We had some severe flooding over the winter,” says Kahl. “Some snakes were under water for weeks at a time. But there was no mortality.”

Fox snakes eat rodents, birds, bird eggs and are threatened primarily by habitat loss. People can also pose a threat. “Some people think the only good snake is a dead snake,” says Kucher.

For more information: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/shiawassee or 989–777–5930.

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