Pat McKrill article, Snake Country

The trees are dropping yellowed leaves, the colours are changing, frogs have gone quiet and one look at the birds and the butterflies tells us there are new species everywhere – the winter migrants are arriving, the summer visitors departing. Autumn’s here and winter’s well on its way. As Bob Dylan would say, “The times they are a changing”.

Just off the end of my verandah, there are three old, snake-friendly pigsties, each comprised of a closed and an open section. If I’m sneaky enough I can peek over the wall and catch a glimpse of a puff adder or two, basking in the morning sun, sometimes with a night adder lying nearby, also getting its vitamins. If they see movement, they’re gone.

They suss out their new house

I often wonder what they talk about. They live in as close to natural conditions as I can give them, in order for them to behave as they would in the wild when I use them in my talks to field workers, conservationist, interested parties etc. When I need a few specimens for a talk, all I need to do is to place a new and different hiding place (a shift-box) in the pen and by morning, I know I’ll have a tenant or two inside – they’re as inquisitive as humans sussing out a new house, and being nomadic to some extent, they’ve no problem with the odd change of scenery.

I don’t provide any special heating or home comforts for them, and they live as they would in the wild, perhaps with the advantage of having less in the way of predators to think about, and, because they would be living a close to typical lifestyle, I quite naturally expect them to do most of the natural things.

A loving snake embrace

So far so good. During the three years in their current abode, everybody has eaten well, grown and shed regularly, and, at last, in about mid- November 2017 – perfect breeding season timing – I was fortunate to be able to film two males engaged in typical snake combat when there’s a female in oestrus nearby (they don’t seem to mind you watching them when they’re otherwise occupied). Not long after that, I filmed a happy couple in a pretty hectic and loving snake-embrace that augured well for the dynasty. Tuesday, April 10, I popped my head over the wall and was greeted by the sight of (as it ultimately turned out) 25 happy, smiling little puff adder faces, all looking skyward and enjoying their first sunrise!

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I’ve often incubated eggs laid in captivity by other indigenous species, but these were my first live-born babies here in SA. I was over the moon. After giving them a week to get settled, shed their first skins and have a run in the park, I collected everybody up and off we went to be released in the game reserve nearby.

The ‘low hit rate’ of resident snakes

Now they’re on their own, to do what nature intended them to do – which they will – with clinical dedication we should envy.

Pat McKrill: herpet@eastcoast.co.za • Cell: 0833036958