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Meet our Fox Snake

Meet our Foxsnake

We received our, Eastern Foxsnake, Pantherophis vulpinus, in the fall of 2015. It was found as a hatchling in someone’s garage by staff of Willowbrook Wildlife Center. It was probably looking for food or somewhere to hibernate for the winter. Willowbrook donated the snake to us to use as an animal ambassador. Foxsnakes are a docile species and work well as educational animals.Our foxsnake was named Flicker by the Eco-Club students at Mill Street Elementary School. Snakes flick their forked tongues to smell their surroundings and find their food.

Fox Snakes typically have a brown, blotchy pattern along the length of their bodies with a yellow to brown background. As adults their reddish heads can make them resemble Northern Copperheads but they are not venomous. (Northern Copperheads and Cottonmouths are only found in southern Illinois.) When startled or stressed they release a musky scent similar to a fox, hence their common name. Fox snakes typically grow to about 48 inches but the record is 70 inches. Flicker is a male foxsnake and like other reptiles he’s cold-blooded with his body temperature dictated by his habitat.

Wild Fox snakes may emerge in April and are often seen on the ground during the day but can climb trees and swim. They tend to live in fields or prairies near streams or marshes. They are common in the northern half of Illinois. They eat small mammals like mice and voles and young rabbits along with eggs and fledgling birds and occasional frogs. We feed Flicker thawed frozen mice purchased from a pet store.  Fox Snakes are constrictors, killing their prey by tightly wrapping their bodies around them and squeezing. Even though the mice we feed Flicker are already dead, he will wrap his body around his food.

As they grow snakes shed their old skin. You can tell when a snake is about to shed because their eyes become cloudy and look bluish. In order to shed a snake rubs its face and body against a rough surface. The skin peels off, inside out, just like when we take off a shirt. A healthy snake's shed skin will come off all in one piece. When you look closely at one you can see the eye caps and individual scales.

Wild fox snakes breed from June to July. The females lay 5-25 eggs and the young hatch in late summer. Hatchlings, which are about 10-13 inches long, are usually shades of grey and mimic the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, the only venomous snake in our region. (These shy, 2-foot rattlesnakes are limited to two small populations in Cook County). To protect themselves from predators like herons and hawks, hatchling fox snakes shake the end of their tails in dry leaves to sound like a rattlesnake. Adults shake their tails too and Flicker has done so with us on several occasions as well. 

In the late fall, fox snakes hibernate in mammal burrows that are below the frost line. Scientists usually call the inactivity of reptiles in winter brumation, rather than hibernation which involves sleep.  During brumation reptiles will slow down and become less active due to the cold. Our nature center animals tend to become less active in winter but they are indoors where it’s warm, their tanks are still heated and we continue to feed them. The length of the day also contributes to an animals’ sense of the season.

Did you know that snakes are essential for control of rodent and rabbit populations? Without snakes we would be overrun by mice, rats and other “vermin”! So Flicker is an Ambassador for all snake species and illustrates the importance of snakes as part of a healthy ecosystem.  

Flicker with cloudy eyes before he sheds.

To learn more about Eastern Foxsnakes, click here.