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Otto: A snake can provide a screamin’ good time

Where do you go for a screamin’ good time in St. Charles? These days, you’ve got lots of options. Pride of the Fox RiverFest is in town for the weekend, so you could hop on something that spins or swings and shriek away. Or, once it warms up a little, you could stop by our new Otter Cove Aquatic Park and squeal yourself silly dropping out of the various water slides.

Or you could drive just a little farther down Campton Hills Road and visit the Hickory Knolls Natural Area.

Granted, most days it’s pretty quiet there; in fact, its peace and serenity are part of its charm. But this past Tuesday things were a little different, at least for a few seconds. That’s when our coworker Joan Kramer found a critter she’s all too accustomed to seeing: a snake.

“I screamed,” Joan said, recalling the incident that brought her within a few feet of the one critter she’d like to avoid. She was behind our maintenance garage looking for, ironically, rattlesnake fern, when the scaly beast appeared, then quickly disappeared into the tall grass.

While snakes per se are fairly common at Hickory Knolls, 99 percent of what we see there are garter snakes. Joan herself had another memorable encounter last summer with a large garter inside that same garage. But this week’s snake was no garter.

“It was HUGE,” Joan said. She held up her fist to show the snake’s girth, and stretched her arms to show its impressive length. She added that this snake was black with spots, not black with stripes like last year’s garter.

Hmm. Intriguing indeed! In Illinois we don’t have very many snakes that grow larger than three or four feet. We also don’t have that many that are both large and black. About the only species that matches both those criteria is a snake that is really uncommon here in Kane County: the black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta.

Now if you travel downstate, out east, or south to Missouri or the Carolinas, black rats are pretty much everywhere. My friend Josh tells the story of a black rat who used to try and grab hummingbirds that came to the feeder outside his Carbondale home. And the author Barbara Kingsolver referenced the snake, though not favorably, in her novel “Prodigal Summer”.

But in Kane County, and specifically in St. Charles, black rats are as rare as rocking horse, um, shoes. (Or rocking horses, for that matter. Do kids even play with those anymore?)

Like their name implies, mature black rats are mostly black, with a white chin and black-and-white checkered belly. Juveniles are more highly patterned, though, with black spots on a gray background.

They live in a variety of habitats, and are great tree climbers, but can also be found around barns and abandoned buildings.

Which could explain why Joan had the good fortune she did the other day. The area behind the garage is a catch-all of sorts, a place where old birdhouses, lumber and firewood are “stored,” so there are lots of great hiding places. And, while not exactly abandoned, the space isn’t visited very often. A snake could live there happy and undisturbed for quite a long period of time.

Joan hasn’t been back to the garage since The Great Encounter, and I haven’t had a chance to check things out there yet either. But I plan to, hopefully this weekend. If I do come across the snake, and if it does turn out to be a black rat, I know I’ll be kind of excited. OK, really excited. Excited enough to just, well, scream.

Pam Otto, an admirer of all things scaly, is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at or 630-513-4346.

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