Garter snakes have many natural predators in the wild and face dangers from a number of different species, including Foxes, Racoons, Hawks, Shrews and even Squirrels!
As a relatively harmless and small snake, a range of other animals in the ecosystem see them as an easy meal. When attacked by predators, their main defense mechanism is to emit a foul smelling musk.
What Eats Garter Snakes?
Garter snakes may be secondary consumers, but they are nonetheless quite low down on their ecosystem’s food chain. Their poor defensive skills, small size, and the very low toxicity of their venom leave them vulnerable to attack from a long list of species.
1. Large Fish
Western aquatic garter snakes are known to swim, especially in British Columbia, including Vancouver Island. They enter the water to find fish, which they eat, but can also find themselves as prey themselves!
When in the water, they’re vulnerable to predation from big fish such as largemouth bass who can target the ill-equipped garter snake with relative ease.
Gartner snakes are also eaten by garfish who are very fast swimmers. Although garfish tend to eat smaller prey like crustaceans and isopods, they do eat water snakes including garter snakes.
Bullfrogs notoriously eat anything they can get their hands on. These large frogs can easily take down a garter snake.
In fact, bullfrogs will even go after large snakes. Scientists have identified scars on snakes’ tails that are identifiable as scars from bullfrog attacks.
Native to the eastern and central United States, this frog species’ habitat overlaps with that of the garter snake. Furthermore, both enjoy spending time by the water, where they’re likely to cross paths.
Like the fish, the bullfrog may also become prey to the garter snake as well. Who eats who ends up coming down to which is larger and which is a better predator at the time.
3. Snapping Turtles
Snapping turtles are omnivores and feed on a wide variety of plants, insects, spiders, worms, fish, birds and snakes.
These large turtles are aquatic scavengers who will hunt in many of the same waters where garter snakes are found.
Garter snakes represent easy pickings for snapping turtles who have been known to also attack and feed on more venomous snakes, too. These animals might be slow but make up for it with their powerful jaws and impenetrable body armour.
3. Milk Snakes
Milk snakes aren’t inherently dangerous and are one of the more docile varieties of snakes. A lot of people tend to keep milk snakes as pets.
Nevertheless, milk snakes are a sub-species of the kingsnake, a notorious snake-eating snake!
Milk snakes aren’t dangerous or venomous to humans. But they have a strong bite and very sharp teeth, which makes them one of the alpha predators in their natural habitats. They can smell garter snakes from over a mile away and are incredibly good at tracking down their prey.
Many birds eat garter snakes as central animals in their diet. Crows are no exception. They have keen eyesight for spotting and swooping on unsuspecting garter snakes.
Their feeding habits vary but it’s generally accepted that they eat snakes as well as lizards, spiders, fish, and small insects like grasshoppers.
Whilst crows are scavengers and will often take the easy path of eating a dead snake, they have also been known to tackle live garter snakes and take them down with relative ease.
They use their razor-sharp talons and long beaks to swoop down and damage the soft tissue on the back of the snake’s head.
Racoons are capable of killing and eating garter snakes, but are often too lazy to do so. Their preferred diet is fish, nuts, and bird eggs.
When attacking snakes, they use their sharp teeth and claws to attack and generally won’t give up slashing and thrashing at the animal until the snake is dead.
Estimations show that about 27% of their diet is vertebrates, which includes lizards and snakes, among other critters.
Over 90% of the fox’s diet is meat. They will eat a range of mammals and reptiles, including garter snakes.
Foxes predate snakes by trapping them in their burrows but will also prey on injured snakes, such as those who have been run over on the side of roads.
Primarily, a fox will eat carrion meat (recently deceased animals) or larger, slower animals such as rabbits. Rabbits are easier to pin down and less likely to put up a fight. While garter snakes are non-venomous to humans, their saliva does have a degree of toxicity that may make the fox sick.
Whilst they aren’t high up on squirrel’s preferred diet, garter snakes have been seen being eaten by squirrels, especially in the winter.
Squirrels are omnivorous which means that they eat both plants and animals. They primarily feed on nuts, seeds and fruits but also feed on insects and small snakes such as the garter snake.
They have also been known to attack garter snakes to defend their young.
This photo shows a squirrel eating a snake. According to the ranger who took the photo, he saw the squirrel fighting with the snake before consuming it. This means the squirrel didn’t just eat the dead meat – it actually killed the snake to eat it!
Crazy as it may sound, shrews have been found to eat baby garter snakes. As with many animals that eat snakes, the shrew is also eaten by snakes. So, it’s an even battle!
Over 65% of a shrew’s diet is insects. The other 35% is a combination of birds, mice and small snakes. Garter snakes are a favourite meal for shrews who will pin them down with their sharp snouts.
Shrews are more likely to eat baby snakes because the fully grown adults represent a risk. It is possible for a shrew to take down and kill an adult garter snake but is rare and only seen when there is a shortage of food.
Hawks are predatory birds that use their amazing eyesight to hone in on snakes from up to two miles away.
These fearless birds of prey can capture and kill a garter snake very easily. The garter snake has no natural defences against hawks that rip into their flesh and can swallow them whole.
Hawks are known to track snakes down for several hours, playing a tolerant game of cat and mouse.
You can often see hawks sitting on top of power poles or high trees eating snakes from a safe vantage point.
Unlike many others in this list, Hawks will prey on adults rather than young garter snakes. They’re larger and higher up the food chain, so see adult snakes as easy prey that has more meat than babies.
10. Steller’s Jays and Robins
This study found that Steller’s Jays and Robins are two of Oregonian garter snakes’ predators.
The study primarily focused on baby garter snakes. Given that Steller’s Jays and Robins are smaller birds than hawks, it makes sense that they will prey on the young while hawks will prey on older snakes.
Like foxes, coyotes will opportunistically eat garter snakes. They tend to eat them more in the dry season than wet season, but this may be because snakes are more active in the dry season.
Coyotes appear to eat rabbits far more than garter snakes. However, garter snakes do form part of their diet, and this seems to occur on an opportunistic basis. They may eat snakes that have been injured in another fight or are found injured on the side of the road.
Interestingly, they will not eat a dead snake, though. This may be to avoid disease or out of a preference for the taste of fresh meat.
Garter snakes may be predators, but they are also prey for a wide range of mammals, birds, and amphibians. They’re one of the most hunted snakes because they’re abundant, not particularly venomous, and small. Thus, they’re a relatively defenceless snake. To avoid predation, garter snakes will stick to long grass and let off a foul musk smell when under attack.