Ask a naturalist

Upon walking through the doors of the Kroening Interpretive Center our visitors first notice the birds suspended in flight down the hallway and the young catfish gliding through the water of their tank, but eventually their sights settle on a glass case at the front desk. Inside, burrowed under wood shavings or hiding in a rock cave is a creature that everyone has questions about; a snake. People of all ages are intrigued by this snake, and ask so many questions, we’re sharing them here.

Q: What kind of snake is it?

A: Our snake is a western fox snake, which is the second largest type of snake found in Minnesota. She’s a juvenile and so is currently fairly small, but will continue to grow her entire life, reaching over five feet in length. Fox snakes are so named because as a defense they are able to emit a musky odor similar to a red fox, which deters predators from seeing them as a potential food source.

Q: Does it bite?

A: Snakes may bite if they feel threatened. However, they are generally shy and timid creatures that prefer to flee rather than bite. Our snake is relatively socialized because we handle her every day in order to keep her comfortable with human interactions. As long as you are gentle and respectful when touching the snake there is no danger of being bitten.

Q: Is it venomous?

A: She is not. Fifteen of the 17 snake species in Minnesota, including fox snakes, are not venomous. For protection however, these snakes will mimic rattle snakes by shaking their tail despite not having a rattle, but when in dry leaves it makes a similar noise.

Q: What does the snake eat?

A: Snakes are carnivores (meat eaters). In the wild, fox snakes prey on small mammals such as voles, moles, shrews and mice as well as small birds and eggs. Unlike venomous snakes, such as rattle snakes, fox snakes are constrictors. This means that after catching prey they squeeze it until it is dead. Snakes eat the entire animal whole (bones, fur or feathers and shells if present) and typically head first too. Here at the Center we buy small mice already dead and frozen, then thaw them out before feeding her once a week. It takes snakes and other reptiles a longer time to digest their food compared to mammals, which is why she doesn’t eat very frequently.

Q: Does this snake make a good pet?

A: Not unless you’re willing to make a very long term commitment. Fox snakes can live to be 30 years old! In addition, their care is not as straight forward as dogs or cats and so time and effort is needed in order to learn how best to care for them. There are financial costs associated with proper care including secure terrarium tank housing, electrical heat sources, and stress reducing structures for hiding and climbing. Not to mention you need the stomach to handle small dead mammals to feed the snake. If you’re thinking about getting a snake first take the time to find out if this commitment is right for you. Unfortunately, many reptiles are purchased hastily, which results in an abundance of unwanted animals in adoption programs.

You are welcome to stop by and meet our snake and other animals for yourself at the Kroening Interpretive Center in North Mississippi Regional Park. Do you have a question about the nature you see in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing and it could appear in a future article!

This winter, get outside and enjoy the outdoors! The Nature Center at North Mississippi is open all year and offers free programs each weekend. Explore snow and ice with your little one by registering for our new play group series -Nature Nuts- for children under age six and an accompanying adult. Each series includes four sessions on Fridays from 2:30-3:30 p.m. Get active and explore this winter by checking out snowshoes each Saturday between 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (provided there is sufficient snow on the ground). Binoculars, nature guides and activity backpacks are also available for check-out every day from the front desk.

This month look for animal tracks in the snow! Create a drawing or take a picture of what you find. Then bring your picture in to show a naturalist at the front desk to receive a North Mississippi Junior Naturalist button! We will display any pictures at the center that people would like to contribute for the month.

Free January Public Programs (all ages): Jan. 6 – Early Birding, search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m.; Jan. 14 – Family Funday, Winter Arts & Animals, meet MN animals and let nature inspire creation of winter themed artwork, 1-3 p.m.; Jan.20 – Outdoor Bushcraft, practice your winter skills in the park, 1:30-3 p.m.;  Jan.27 – Watching Wildlife Hike, walk the park looking for animals and signs they leave behind, 2-3 p.m.; and Snowshoeing, Saturdays borrow a pair of snowshoes and hike the park, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Kids School Release Days (ages 6-12): Jan. 25 and 26 Winter Fun & Games: Play in the snow and trek on snowshoes! 8 a.m.- 4 p.m., $50.

Find registration for these programs and more at or call 612-370-4844 for more info. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park.

This article was written by Kelley Ekstrom, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park