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A common garter snake catches a frog as nature lovers hit the trails and boardwalks of the Barataria Preserve for "Spring in the Swamp" in 2018.

While fetching our mail last Saturday, I spotted a garter snake on our porch as he was eating a bird. It wasn’t the gladdest tiding of spring, though I couldn’t bring myself to look away.

What interested me, I suppose, was the question of how our visitor was going to finish his meal. He had killed a pine siskin — a lovely little bird with gold-tipped wings — but even this small prey seemed too much for the slender snake to consume.

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My wife and I often checked on the snake as he had his breakfast near our front door. Within an hour, he had summoned his dark magic, finished his gruesome work, and slithered off into the shrubbery. He’d been too immersed in the rapture of gluttony to pay us much heed, so we were able to see, up close, one of the more unflattering scenes from the suburban wild.

“Spring in Louisiana,” I muttered to myself as I heated our kettle for tea. There is, in fact, such a plenitude of life in this part of the world that it can sometimes arrive, as our garter snake did, right on your welcome mat.

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Whether I meant my household welcome to include garter snakes is another question that gives me pause. I love birds and was sad to see one die. But I’d noticed, in the past week, that a pine siskin at our feeder was clearly failing to thrive. Maybe this frail siskin was the same one who had succumbed to our garter snake. I was heartened to think a doomed bird had at least provided nourishment for another creature.

My wife likes seeing snakes in our yard, rightly pointing out that they sustain a healthy ecology. Among other things, they kill rodents. Snakes can, in their own strange way, have a kind of beauty, too. Our garter snake, its stripes as vivid and intricate as the strands of a braided rug, was a case in point.

Here in heavily Catholic south Louisiana, many gardens include a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, celebrated for his love of all animals, even the homely ones. His tolerance is widely admired but seldom imitated. I am, in my own attitudes to wild things, far from the Franciscan ideal.

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Possums, to cite but one example, continue to test my virtue, as I was reminded last month when one visited our yard. Freezing weather had left our backyard birds especially hungry, so I’d salted the ground with sunflower seeds to get them through. The bounty attracted a possum, who showed up near the patio as we were headed to bed. His blank, white face made an eerie moon, and his ratty tail stuck straight out like a divining rod.

I didn’t like his looks. But I wondered, as wildlife watchers occasionally do, if I looked as strange to him as he did to me.


Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.