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Snakes a spectacle of spring but winter homes need space

Garter snakes have emerged from their winter homes over the past month, putting on a display that is a thrilling sign of spring for some, and nightmare fuel for others.

Either way, it's hands off.

"The males come out first," says Judy Fleetham, a zoologist by education and lover of the native serpents. "And then they kind of wind around the first female that comes out and then they just go. They swarm her basically."

The cold-blooded snakes live out the winter months deep in the earth, finding deep cracks in the rock along sunny south facing slopes, usually not too far from water. Called hibernacula, the dens are filled with anywhere from dozens to even thousands of snakes in some places.

"One of the first signs of spring that I love is the snakes and the crocuses," Fleetham says.

The snakes and their hibernacula are protected under provincial law, so while there is nothing wrong with watching the snakes, any damage or interference with them is an offence under the Wildlife Act.

The city says it wants to hear from anyone who thinks they know where a hibernaculum is located.

"There’s probably under 100 in the city itself but some of them can be quite large," says Tanya Hope, a parks ecologist with the City of Calgary.

There's at least one well-known location in the northwest, but the city doesn't share known locations.

"The ones that we do know we keep an eye on them. We don’t really sign them or point them out because the secret to the protection is to kind of keep the secret," Hope says.

Garter snakes are harmless to people and feed mostly on aquatic creatures such as tadpoles and sometimes fish.

Another fun fact - while they mate in the spring, they have their babies in the late summer.

"They give birth to live young, they don’t lay eggs," says Fleetham. "The little baby snakes are about six inches long and they’re born live."