The Eastern Hognose Snake: An Award-Winning Actor
Every few years I stumble across an eastern hognose snake while hunting turkeys or morel mushrooms.
And every time I respond much the same way: I seize in mild panic, catch my breath and then calm myself, knowing there’s no venomous snakes in central Wisconsin. But sheesh, you’d think at my age I wouldn’t instinctively react as if I’d seen a cobra or black mamba when a 2-foot snake slithers through fallen leaves, its wide, flat body shimmering in a series of mottled black, tan and brown S-curves.
Still, I study the snake’s head to confirm it isn’t wide at the jaws, and then look for its upturned nose, which gives the hognose its name. They use that snout to dig toads and frogs from their hiding places in soil.
I didn’t go through that cycle of fright, relaxation and analysis last week, however, while hunting turkeys with Skye Goode near her home southwest of Neillsville. After muffing on a shot about 8:30 a.m. on May 11 and then trying a new setup in the Clark County Forest, I heard Goode say, “Hey, look! A little hognose snake.”
Goode held the young snake in her palm. Somehow she had spotted its thin, well-camouflaged body in the fallen oak leaves. I complimented her laser-like game eye, but she waved it off, crediting a real laser.
“LASIK surgery,” she said. “Best money I’ve ever spent.”
Goode rotated her hands, overlapping them to match the snake’s movements as it tried to flee, and then let it go when it refused to demonstrate any of the common tricks hognoses use when threatened. Their most popular ploy is playing dead after flopping onto their back.
“Maybe it’s too young and doesn’t know that one yet,” Goode said as the snake disappeared into the leaves. And with that, she staked a hen decoy into the ground and we resumed turkey hunting.
As we sat, listening and waiting for another gobbler to humiliate me, I thought of past encounters with hognose snakes. After spotting my first one years ago while pulling arrows from a backyard target in Waupaca, I grabbed my camera and moved in for some close-ups. Its body suddenly puffed out wide and thick, making it look like the copperhead I encountered years ago in Virginia.
Then it raised its head 3 inches off the ground and fanned its neck like a cobra. It held that pose as I photographed it from several angles. When it glided away minutes later, I trotted ahead, causing it to stop by a stump, curl into itself, and fan its neck while resting its head atop a stick.
That hognose never played dead, but I learned why it’s nicknamed the “puff adder,” “spread adder,” “puffer snake,” “blower snake” or “blow snake.” The Department of Natural Resources considers the hognose “common” in Wisconsin. It’s also found across much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States.
These snakes have fangs in the back of their mouth and mild venom, but they’re no puff adder, a deadly African snake. In fact, when snake experts describe the hognose’s nature, they often write “very” in front of “rarely bites humans.” They seem to include “very” most often when describing the snake in children’s guides, or when trying to calm ophidiophobes (people with morbid fear of snakes) like me.
The eastern hognose doesn’t need to bite people because it has enough acting skills to scare most folks away. As I discovered, it first puffs up to look like a bad mofo, and then makes like a cobra with its neck and head.
I must have looked harmless to that first adult hognose years ago because it did no further acting. In many cases, though, a hognose hisses nonstop and makes false strikes, but with its mouth closed.
I learned that during my second backyard encounter a couple of years later. That day I found a slightly smaller hognose tangled in a mesh-wire fence surrounding our raspberry patch. When I started cutting it free with a snips, it flared, hissed, and struck my gloved hands repeatedly, leading with its upturned snout.
After flinching and returning to my rescue efforts, I watched the hognose launch itself into an elaborate death scene. It writhed as if in pain, opened its mouth, rolled out its tongue, salivated, dug its snout into the dirt, barfed, defecated, rolled onto its back, and finally lay still.
I finished freeing it from the tangled wire, pulled it into the shade, and watched it laying limp on its back. Just for fun, I rolled it onto its stomach. Instead of staying there, it rolled back onto its back and resumed playing possum. I rolled it upright again, and again it flopped onto its back.
Hey, don’t judge its intelligence too harshly. It’s a snake. Its brain is the size of an olive pit. It doesn’t realize it can play dead right-side up.
I looked into its open mouth, but couldn’t see the fangs in the back that I’d read about. Still, I’m sure they were there, however small. Those fangs aren’t for people, of course. They’re for toads, its favorite food.
The hognose hunts toads in their burrows during daylight, and toads try to save themselves by inflating like a balloon. The hognose just keeps working, and eventually slides the toad past those fangs and pops Toady’s skin like a birthday balloon.
Poof! Dinner is served.
Although the hognose prefers toads, it also eats frogs, salamanders, small mammals, birds, bird eggs, insects, lizards, smaller snakes, snake eggs and parts of dead animals. Nope, the hognose is no vegan.
At this point, most snake educators would send you off with a friendly reminder to stay calm and not be alarmed when encountering an eastern hognose snake. As one such educator wrote: “Watch it from a distance with renewed interest and less fear.”
Pffft! Yeah, right. Skye Goode might do that, but not me. I’ll keep seizing up in momentary panic, and then look around self-consciously, hoping no one noticed.
Skye Goode of Neillsville holds a young eastern hognose snake she found in the Clark County Forest while turkey hunting. — Patrick Durkin photos