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Jonathan Crowe's Articles

Last Build Date: Wed, 06 Jun 2007 17:31:20 -0500

Copyright: Copyright 1999-2007 Jonathan Crowe. Some rights reserved.

How to Write an Article for a Herp Society Newsletter

Wed, 06 Jun 2007 17:31:20 -0500

First published in Chorus 23, no. 8 (Oct. 2007). I don’t envy Bob’s job. Getting people to write articles for herpetological society newsletters is a difficult if not impossible task, as I know all too well. During my two years editing The Ontario Herpetological Society News (from 1999 to 2001), I had to beg, plead and cajole people to write articles for me. Of the articles I did get, more than a few were so badly written that I had to edit them heavily. Rewriting the articles sentence by sentence did not always go over well with some of the authors, who objected to every change I made to their prose. Even if it was awful. Especially, it seemed, if it was awful. But problems with grammar and spelling weren’t the only issues. In many cases the articles were written well enough, but were in a convoluted and overwrought style; others didn’t seem to have much of a point. And some were just too darn long. Don’t misunderstand me: herpers aren’t necessarily bad writers. But I do think they could use some guidance—some advice that would allow them to make the most of what they’ve got, and say what they’re trying to say, without tripping up. Every kind of writing is different: you don’t write a newspaper article, or an instruction manual, the same way you write a novel. No one, to my knowledge, has sat down to write something that said, “This is how you write an article for a herpetological newsletter.” So I thought I would try. I think the reason why it’s so hard to get herpers to write an article is that they’re just too intimidated by the prospect. I’ve seen authorities in their field, with all kinds of tips and tricks to share, absolutely freeze when someone tried to hit them up to write something for The OHS News. They couldn’t imagine doing it. Total panic. Even a short article for a club newsletter with a tiny circulation is too much for people who are too self-conscious about their writing. Those of us who are comfortable with our writing don’t always appreciate that. Most of the problems I encountered in the writers’ articles were, I think, a result of that self-consciousness. Those writers who could work up the nerve to submit something to me ended up trying too hard. Essentially, they overdid it: by trying to be professional, they came across as convoluted; by trying to be comprehensive, they ended up writing articles that were too long, or contained material that wasn’t really needed for the article’s purpose. Telling people not to be afraid won’t help: easier said than done! And giving a crash course in grammar is beyond the scope of this article (or this newsletter, for that matter). But I can offer some suggestions that might help you write a reptile article, if some of what I’ve described seems all too familiar to you. First, write informally. You’re writing for a herp newsletter, not Reptiles magazine, and certainly not Copeia. Your audience is small (usually fewer than a hundred people), and it’s made up of your friends and acquaintances, not a bunch of scary professors and experts who might humiliate you for the least mistake. We’re not going to make fun of you for writing something—in fact, we’re going to be proud of you for stepping up and trying. Most of us know what stage fright is like. One thing you could try is to write your article as though you were explaining something to a friend via e-mail. (Except, of course, you’d be more careful about spelling and punctuation.) I’ve known people who were perfectly articulate in their correspondence and in person, but who clammed up completely when they tried to Write Something. Get over that. Forget any notions of writing for posterity. Don’t worry about how you’re telling your story—just tell it. Relax! My second suggestion is to limit your focus. As I’ve said, too many articles try to cover too much. Writing the definitive article on a [...]

The Seven Rules of Raising Baby Garter Snakes

Wed, 03 May 2006 11:23:21 -0500

First published in Chorus 22, no. 5 (May 2006). Few people are crazy enough to breed garter snakes and raise the babies, but more than a few of us have unexpectedly been handed the task of raising a large number of baby garter snakes. We may, for example, have been handed a “rescued” garter snake that turns out to be very, very pregnant, which then surprises you one day with dozens of her offspring slithering around her cage. Oh great, you think. Now what? Suddenly you’re faced with having to look after a whole bunch of little snakes. The sheer number of them can make that a very intimidating situation. And raising baby garter snakes isn’t the same as raising a litter or two of corn snakes. Garter snakes don’t eat mice, you think, and they’re too small for pinkies anyway — how are you going to feed them all? Taking care of an adult garter snake, especially if it’s been trained to eat mice, isn’t really any different from taking care of your average colubrid. But baby garter snakes are different. Their special requirements can trip you up if you’re not ready for them, but they’re not that difficult once you know them. I call them the Seven Rules of Raising Baby Garter Snakes, and I’ll share them with you here. Rule #1: Garter snakes shed immediately after birth. The books say that baby snakes shed seven to 10 days after birth, after which you can begin offering them food. (Even Perlowin’s book on garter snakes states this as a fact.) The first time I had a litter of baby garters, I didn’t see the birth itself, so I waited. And waited. It never came. The next year I was able to watch the whole gory process, and, to my surprise, they were shedding within minutes of breaking out of the birth sac. The shed skins were so thin, they practically disintegrated under the traffic of 42 baby snakes (and one adult); if I hadn’t seen them shed, I’d never have known they’d done it. So if you’re waiting for them to shed before offering them food, don’t. Rule #2: House baby garter snakes in small groups. The conventional wisdom is to house baby snakes individually in small containers. If you’re facing a large litter of garter snakes — as I did in 2002 with my litter of 42 red-sided garters — that’s an impractical number of plastic boxes. Fortunately, housing them together isn’t a problem. Not only is it more convenient, but baby garter snakes have been observed to be calmer when housed in groups. (Garter snakes aggregate in the wild, especially during hibernation, so we shouldn’t assume that they’re completely asocial.) I split my litter of 42 among four five-gallon tanks: 10 to 11 snakes each. They were small enough at the time that it worked; over time I managed to sell a few, so I ended up able to have fewer snakes per cage as they got larger. They should still be fed individually, though; more about that later. Rule #3: Dessication is a serious risk on hot days. Dessication can be fatal on hot, dry days, so you want to be able to have a moist spot. The entire cage shouldn’t be moist, because that encourages blister disease. But you can keep a clump of moistened sphagnum moss in one corner of an otherwise dry cage to prevent the snakes from drying out. Rule #4: Getting baby garter snakes to start eating is hard. I’ve had some troubles getting the little monsters to start eating, and I think there were several reasons for this. For one thing, they’re too small for some of the more conveniently acquired food items, such as pinky mice or bait-store nightcrawlers. Some of them — my wandering garter snakes, for example — looked good and plump at birth, and weren’t hungry, probably due to retained egg yolk. Others had trouble recognizing what they were being offered as food, either because it didn’t move (they responded to live fish but ignored fish fillet and cut-up worms) or because they [...]

Raising Baby Garter Snakes: Some Personal Observations

Thu, 05 May 2005 18:30:31 -0500

First published in The Garter Snake, April 2005. The herpetocultural literature on the raising of young garter snakes is surprisingly scant. Apart from some issues of diet, the care of adult garter snakes is little different from that of any other medium-sized North American colubrid. Books on the subject either deal with neonate garter snake care in very general terms, or treat it as similar to that of other snakes. But this is not the case. There are some definite differences in the care of newborn garter snakes, especially in terms of feeding and housing. As a result, when my garter snakes started breeding in the spring of 2001, I was not prepared for some of the surprises their offspring had in store for me. What I propose to do in this article is to share what I’ve learned from raising a few litters1 of garter snakes, plus a few neonates that I did not breed, but acquired when they were very young. This is by no means scientific or definitive, but anecdotal. It’s merely what I’ve observed. If your observations differ, by all means share them: at this point, we need as many observations as we can get, if we’re to understand better how to look after our charges. I’d like to begin with a few observations about breeding, which is obviously the necessary first step. In my limited experience, I have not found garter snake breeding to be at all difficult: every attempt at pairing has been successful. All I’ve done is either keep the breeding pair in the same cage at all times, in the case of my pair of Red-sided Garter Snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis, or introduce them in the standard manner for colubrids, in the case of my pair of Wandering Garter Snakes, Thamnophis elegans vagrans, which I kept separately for fear of ophiophagy (which is well documented for that taxon). Nevertheless, breeding was far from routine. My male T. s. parietalis was resolutely indifferent to mating season. When I first introduced him to the female in mid-October 2000, he pounced immediately. Intromission occurred after two weeks of intense and dramatic courtship; courting behavior was observed for weeks thereafter, and he refused food for nearly two months. They were artificially brumated over winter, at temperatures between 12 and 15°C. The following March, I introduced him to a second female T. s. parietalis owned by a friend. They were in the cage together for only a few hours; mating this time was immediate. Both females gave birth in late May. The following July, entirely out of season, he mated with my female again. She did not give birth until June 13, 2002, when she delivered a litter of 42 babies — a total of eleven months between mating and birth, four of which were spent in hibernation. Clearly, female garter snakes are more than capable of retaining sperm until ovulation. From what I’ve been able to observe, female garter snakes ovulate almost immediately after coming out of hibernation, and give birth approximately two and a half months after conception: my T. s. parietalis gave birth a month later in 2002 than she had in 2001, but she had also come out of hibernation a month later. Similarly, my female T. e. vagrans, which had mated in mid-April 2002, delivered seven babies on July 3, 2002. The birth process itself takes very little time. I was able to witness — and photograph! — the birth of my 2002 litter of 42 T. s. parietalis, which took less than a couple of hours. The babies emerge from their birth sacs within minutes, some more quickly than others: at least one baby was breaking out of its sac before the sac had finished emerging from the mother! 2 The babies’ first shed occurs almost immediately. The skin is extremely thin and ephemeral compared with that of other colubrids, and can easily be lost in the general mess and snake traffic that occurs during birth. This contradicts Perlowin (1992), who writes that garter snakes shed seven to 10 days after birth, like other[...]

Onslow kids send kits to Mozambique

Wed, 17 Dec 2003 09:00:00 -0500

First published in The Equity, Dec. 17, 2003.

QUYON — Mozambique may be a far-off country in southern Africa, but that hasn’t stopped the kids at Onslow Elementary School from reaching out to help.

In only eight days, they raised enough money to buy and send 150 kits of school supplies to children in the northern Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique.

“They’re not as fortunate as us,” said Grade 6 student Bailey Anderson, who is one of four student organizers. “We felt that we could do something, so we did.”

The Onslow students did it as part of Project Love, an initiative of CODE, an Ottawa-based organization that promotes literacy and education in developing countries.

Through Project Love, which was begun 17 years ago in London, Ont., CODE expects to distribute 70,000 school kits from 483 Canadian schools this year.

Each kit contains a pencil, eraser, ruler and notebook — along with a personal note from the student who assembled the kit.

The Onslow kids spent Thursday morning assembling the kits.

Grade 2 student Keegan Picard, 7, read his message to his class.

“I hope you like the gifts we gave you,” he said.

The kids raised $376 through a series of projects: a movie day where they made and sold popcorn at 25 cents a bag, a bake sale, and candygrams — bags of candy bought for someone else for 25 cents. They sold 180 bags.

In the end, Onslow’s 120 students raised a total of $376 — enough to buy 150 school kits and pay to ship them to Mozambique.

Shipping the kits overseas is both expensive and time-consuming, said Garth Brooks, CODE’s project manager for Project Love.

The kits will be collected from across Canada and warehoused until next summer, when they will be shipped to Mozambique just before the start of the school year.

Seventy-five per cent of a kit’s cost is eaten up by shipping, said Brooks. CODE works with local agencies to distribute the kits.

Normally a Valentine’s Day activity, Project Love was also fitting for the Christmas holidays, said Brooks.

“You’ve picked a good day because Christmas is a time of giving,” he said.

Brooks told a school assembly Thursday a little bit about Mozambique, where most people live on less than $1 a day, the life expectancy is 36 and the literacy rate is only 44 per cent.

A former Portuguese colony that became independent in 1975, Mozambique suffered through decades of civil war until a peace agreement was signed in 1992.

“I’d love to see the looks on their faces when they open their packages and read your letters,” said Brooks.

Stand-up comedians find their way to Shawville RA hall

Wed, 03 Dec 2003 09:15:00 -0500

First published in The Equity, Dec. 3, 2003.

SHAWVILLE — The good news is that three Yuk Yuk’s stand-up comedians were in town Saturday night to perform at a fundraiser for the Shawville RA.

The bad news? They had to come in on Hwy. 148 to do it.

“Is that a paved-over roller-coaster or what?” quipped headliner Pete Zedlacher. “And the curves — is that a highway or a luge run?”

And then there were the road signs.

“There aren’t any,” said opener and master of ceremonies, Ottawa-based comic Mike Beatty, who claimed that the fundraiser was “so you can buy a sign to the RA centre.”

There was an element of truth in this — Jason Laurans, another Ottawa-based comedian and the middle act in the program, did in fact get lost trying to find the RA hall.

A running gag throughout the evening was the amenities available in Shawville — or lack thereof. When the comedians discovered that there was no KFC or Tim Horton’s in town, Zedlacher announced that he was running for mayor on a platform of bringing Tim’s to Shawville.

Surprisingly shrewd local jokes were combined with well-worn routines as the audience of about 100 laughed at the comedians’ routines, much of which cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper.

Laurans’s set included material on the difference between French and Québécois accents, men sharing hotel rooms, and trying to get a 1981 K car started.

Zedlacher, a Toronto-based comic born in Wawa, Ont. who has had a television special, produced astonishing facial contortions during a dead-on Arnold Schwartzenegger impression.

Zedlacher performed in Shawville the last time Yuk Yuk’s came to town (for a fundraiser for the arena sound system).

He proudly bills himself as the first comic to entertain troops in Afghanistan. He drew applause when he talked about supporting the troops overseas.

He pointed out that while Canadian troops in Afghanistan had to wear green fatigues, the U.S. troops were wearing desert camouflage.

“Those pussies are hiding,” he said.

As with all good stand-up routines, interaction with the audience was a key part of the performance, whose victims included the owner of a 1985 Olds Delta 88 and a certain Equity reporter who couldn’t take a simple picture without someone cracking wise about it.

“Live is so much more interactive,” said Laurans after the performance. “There’s nothing like live for that. It’s jokes but there’s more than that.”

Opponents protest MoP landfill site proposal at public meeting

Wed, 03 Dec 2003 09:00:00 -0500

First published in The Equity, Dec. 3, 2003. QUYON — An engineered landfill site proposed for North Onslow was the subject of heated debate between residents opposed to the plan and the mayor and council supporting it at a public consultation meeting held last week. While supporters maintained that the project would eliminate a potential health hazard at the current landfill and be a financial benefit to the community, opponents argued that any benefits would be outweighed by the sheer size of the project, and worried that residents would lose control once the contract had been signed. About 120 people attended the public consultation held at the Quyon Lions Hall Nov. 25, where the mayor and councillors of the Municipality of Pontiac and the contractor, Denis Rouleau, president of LDC Gestion et Services environnementeaux, tried to make their case and answer audience questions. MoP Mayor Bruce Campbell opened the meeting by making his case for the engineered landfill. For Mayor Campbell, the landfill addresses two problems looming on the horizon: forthcoming provincial regulations that will make the current trench landfill on Wolf Lake Road more expensive to operate; and the potential that pollutants leaking from the dump site could contaminate the groundwater. “Doing nothing does not mean that nothing changes,” said Campbell, who estimated that maintaining the status quo would cost ratepayers an extra $138 per year. Cleaning up the site would cost $1.5 million or more, he said. Under the proposal, LDC would clean up the current landfill and replace it with an engineered landfill, which it would operate on a for-profit basis, taking in garbage from across the region. Controversy erupted earlier this year when it was suggested that residential garbage from Gatineau might be taken to the site, but Rouleau assured the meeting that that option was no longer on the table. “We’re coming to you very early in the project,” said Rouleau. “A lot of elements are not confirmed yet.” MoP residents would get free non-commercial access to the dump, and the MoP would be entitled to a one-third share of the profits. The deal would last until 850,000 cubic metres of the site’s 900,000-cubic-metre capacity had been used, or for 20 years, whichever came first; Rouleau projected between 11 and 17 years. At that point, the remaining capacity — about 20 years of the MoP’s garbage output — would be turned over to the MoP. LDC would continue to monitor the site for an additional 30 years. Details of the proposal, along with questions and answers about the technical aspects of the project, have been covered in recent columns by Katharine Fletcher in The Equity and on the weekly paper’s web site. Campbell argued that the proposal was a win-win situation for all concerned. Garbage expenses would be kept down and an unsecured landfill site would be cleaned up. “We negotiated ourselves a good deal for all parties and we’re proud of it,” said Campbell. For Rouleau, whose company stands to make a projected profit of $8 million over the project’s lifetime, public support was crucial to the project’s success. With the public behind the project, LDC could receive a certificate to operate the site within two and a half years, rather than the five years it normally takes. Some residents were concerned about the extra traffic on the road that the new landfill would generate, or the smell, or the risk to their well water. Nor was everyone convinced that the new landfill would be any safer than the current site. “All landfills leak. All liners leak,” said Wolf Lake Road resident Vladimir Tolstoy after the meeting. Tolstoy was not satisfied with the assurances that the engineered landfill technology would prevent contaminants from reaching the groundwater. “We have[...]

High schools score low

Wed, 19 Nov 2003 09:00:00 -0500

First published in The Equity, Nov. 19, 2003. Pontiac’s high schools have not fared well in the latest annual report on Quebec high school performance. The report, titled Report Card on Quebec’s Secondary Schools: 2003 Edition, was jointly produced by the Montreal Economic Institute and the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute. This is the fourth year that the institutes have produced this report. École secondaire Sieur de Coulonge finished 219th, St. Alphonsus High School (now Dr. Wilbert Keon School) finished 309th, John Paul II High School finished 416th and Pontiac High School finished 435th. The study graded 455 schools across the province on a number of factors, such as examination marks and the percentage of students who graduate on time. The report was based on publicly available data for the 2001-2002 school year. The report’s researchers performed a statistical analysis and assigned a score from one to 10 to each school. But the report is not without its critics. Officials from Pontiac’s two school boards argue that the report focuses too much on performance in tests. “The report leaves out some important elements of what a school is about,” said Kevin Drysdale, director of education for the Western Quebec School Board. Drysdale pointed to socialization as a key — though difficult to measure — role played by schools. For Marlène Thonnard, director general of the Commission scolaire des Hauts-Bois-de-l’Outaouais, success is more than how well a student performs on a provincial exam. Success, she argued, could be measured by whether a student stays in school. “The more students we keep in the school, maybe we won’t have as high results, but they’re still in school,” said Thonnard. In addition, Drysdale said that because the report counts a student who moves to another province as a dropout rather than a transfer, an English-language school near the Ontario border would be penalized more than, say, a French-language school in the middle of the province. “There is movement (across the border) that is not taken into account,” said Drysdale. “We believe it would be significantly higher than in the French population.” Another issue is “school choice” and whether private and public schools can be compared. The Fraser Institute, a conservative think-tank, is a long-time advocate of school choice — which, in a nutshell, means giving parents the ability to send their children to private school with financial support from the government. The report groups public and private schools together; of the top 50 schools, only six are public schools. Both Thonnard and Drysdale said that it’s unfair to group private and public schools in the same category. “(Private schools) select their students. We don’t select. We take everybody,” said Thonnard. In particular, public schools must take care of special-needs children. For example, 14.4 per cent of Pontiac High’s students are special needs students, while private schools generally have few to none, Drysdale said. “This really is apples and oranges, and that’s unfair,” said Drysdale. “We have to look after those students,” said Thonnard. And, Thonnard pointed out, school choice is a moot point in rural areas, where there is only one school for miles around. Drysdale concurred. “It’s a non starter for someone living in Noranda,” he said. Finally, there is some debate as to how much impact a school really makes on a student’s performance. Thonnard pointed to a study by Jean-Guy Blais, a professor of education at the Université de Montréal, which concluded that the school is a factor in only 17 per cent of the results; the students themselves determine the[...]

Letters tell the story of Sheenboro airman’s death

Wed, 05 Nov 2003 09:00:00 -0500

First published in The Equity, Nov. 5, 2003. Francis Kempton Morris’s family first heard the news by telegram. “Kemp,” a native of Sheenboro, was a gunnery sergeant in the Royal Canadian Air Force. On the night of Nov. 18, 1943, his plane went on a bombing raid over Mannheim, Germany. The plane never returned. He had just turned 21 years old on the 15th. “They sent word — we got a telegram at the end of November that he was presumed missing,” says Grace Bryson, Kemp’s younger sister. She remembers feeling “just shock” when her family heard the news. “We never thought that this would happen,” she said. Kemp and Grace were the sixth and fifth youngest, respectively, of a family of 16 children. They were 18 months apart in age. “We always had a party,” says Grace, “because there were so many of us. We were an Irish-Catholic family.” Grace, now 79, lives in Pembroke, where she quilts for her grandchildren and for church missions. She remembers going to school in Sheenboro with her brother. “They used to think we were twins, even though there were 18 months between us,” she says. Like his older brother, Melvin, who joined the navy, Kemp enlisted, joining the RCAF in high school in 1941. Two other brothers tried to sign up, but were turned down for health reasons. He went overseas in June 1943 and became an air gunner; his last mission was his 11th. “We just thought that … nine more flights and he’d be home,” says Grace. The family waited for word about what had happened to Kemp. Then, in January, they received word that his plane had been shot down and that he had been killed. A letter from the RCAF’s casualties officer, dated Jan. 17, 1944, confirmed the news, saying that Kemp had been captured and “underwent an operation for gunshot wounds to his abdomen from which he failed to recover.” Subsequent letters to the family revealed more and more details about what had happened to Kemp after he had been shot down. Another letter from the casualties officer said that, based on Red Cross information, when Kemp had been captured, he was taken to Ebernach, Germany. He had died at 9:45 p.m. on Nov. 20, 1943, “with a Catholic priest at his bedside.” The letter also enclosed a short, handwritten note from Kemp that he had written before going into surgery. But not all the letters came from the casualties officer’s desk. The first remarkable letter came from Father Walter Hauth. He was an assistant priest in Cochem, Germany, and was one of two priests who had administered Kemp’s last rites. He wrote, in English, to Kemp’s father on Sept. 17, 1946. “Your dear son smiled when the priest came in,” he wrote. “We had a nice, little conversation. I can’t tell you how he was pleased when I heard his confession and gave him the blessing.” Three days after Kemp died, he gave the funeral mass. “Oh, I know I can’t give you a word of consolation, I can’t give you your dear son again, but I can tell you that he died in peace of God.” Two letters, apparently unrelated, followed from Bruno Bous, an ambulance driver who received a call to pick up a young, wounded Canadian airman. Bous’s letter added another piece to the puzzle of what had happened to Kemp. He wrote that he picked Kemp up from a doctor’s private infirmary and transported him to the hospital in Cochem. Bous also was able to provide some information about where Kemp had been buried. “Mr. Morris was buried with full military honours in the cemetery of my native city Cochem. His grave is cared for and there is a cross and flowers. It bears the number 224. If you wish, I will send you a snapshot of the grave, and a[...]

Shawville-Clarendon library gets more funds, work begins

Wed, 29 Oct 2003 09:00:00 -0500

First published in The Equity, Oct. 29, 2003.

SHAWVILLE — With additional funds coming at almost the last possible minute, the Shawville-Clarendon Library is set to begin construction immediately.

Clarendon Mayor Jack Lang and Shawville Mayor Albert Armstrong received word from Pontiac MNA Charlotte L’Écuyer Thursday evening that their application for an increased Resource Region grant had been accepted.

“I was speechless for five or 10 seconds with Charlotte,” said Armstrong.

The new grant increases the provincial funding for the library to $508,231 from $276,484. Each municipality will also kick in an additional $44,000, bringing the total contribution from each to about $150,000.

It has not yet been determined how the municipalities will come up with the extra money. Multi-year budgeting and borrowing are two options.

The additional funds mean that the library’s design will not have to be scaled back in order to proceed.

“We didn’t cut anything,” said Lang.

The funds may not have come a moment too soon. DLS Construction’s bid was only good for 60 days after the Aug. 27 deadline for tenders. It was set to expire Sunday, which meant that for all practical purposes the contract needed to be signed no later than Friday.

“It was getting to be nerve-wracking,” said Lang.

“We were 99 per cent sure we were going to get it, but you can’t go on 99, you want 100,” he added.

Armstrong agreed. “It was very stressful,” he said.

Armstrong and Lang were in Aylmer to sign the contract Friday. Had that not happened, the bidding process would have had to begin all over again — and, with higher winter construction costs, the bids would quite likely have been even higher.

The library ran into trouble in September when the bids came in much higher than originally budgeted for.

Construction costs had risen since they had budgeted for the library.

“The prices had escalated 30 to 40 per cent on building materials,” said Armstrong.

Shawville and Clarendon officials scrambled to find a way to bridge the gap between budget and bid before the end of the year, or else risk losing their Resource Region grant.

Afraid that the library was in jeopardy, more than 30 library supporters packed the Sept. 23 meetings of both Shawville and Clarendon councils to press them to find a solution. Since then, the work has been focused on getting more funds.

Armstrong and Lang credit L’Écuyer — “without her it wouldn’t be realized,” said Armstrong — the CLD, the Pontiac MRC and the Ministry of Regional Economic Development for putting together the new budget and helping make the new funds possible.

Word that the library had been given the go-ahead spread quickly through the community and became the town’s worst-kept secret.

“I am so delighted,” said Joan Conrod on Saturday. She had been telephoned Thursday evening with the news.

“I’m extremely grateful for the work of Albert Armstrong, Jack Lang and Sandra Murray, who refused to accept defeat and fought for it,” she said.

Janet McCord agreed.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “We need it desperately.

“Some people will say it’s just a bunch of books, but I want to look beyond that.

“It’s a public building. It’s not just a library.”

An official sod-turning ceremony has been scheduled for next Monday morning.

Tanker truck gets refurbished at 25

Wed, 29 Oct 2003 08:45:00 -0500

First published in The Equity, Oct. 29, 2003.

SHAWVILLE — A 25-year-old fire truck came back to the Shawville-Clarendon Fire Department Oct. 10 with a brand new tank and better equipment.

The truck, a tanker that can bring 1,300 gallons to the site of a fire, was purchased by the Municipality of Clarendon in December 1978. It was that municipality’s first fire truck.

Its tank has been completely replaced.

“The tank had been leaking,” said Clarendon Mayor Jack Lang.

And, thanks to the elimination of several 90-degree angles in the piping, the pumps can now deliver 420 gallons per minute at 150 psi, instead of 225 gallons per minute.

Cabinets along the sides and back have been replaced for better organization, and now come with sliding doors instead of opening out.

In fact, virtually everything past the cab has been replaced except for the chassis, which is in good shape despite the truck’s age.

Not a lot of miles get put on a fire truck — after a quarter century, the odometer reads only slightly more than 13,500 km.

The refit cost a total of $69,809.15 — an amount that had been budgeted for by Clarendon council.

“This investment is a long-term investment,” said Clarendon Coun. Mavis Hanna. “It’s money well spent.”

Clarendon is responsible for the truck under the 1997 fire fighting agreement between Shawville and Clarendon.

“This truck was too good to junk,” said SCFC Chief Lee Laframboise. “(It’s) worth a lot more than they spent.”

The truck originally cost $40,000 in 1978.

While the truck had been away getting refurbished since July, the SCFD has been making do with its other tanker truck, a newer model bought two years ago with a 3,000-gallon capacity.

With both trucks in service, the SCFD can bring a total of 4,300 gallons to a fire immediately, and then alternate between the trucks as one goes to refill its tanks.

“It’s more than adequate preparation to fight fires in the community,” said Hanna.

Tanker trucks are vital in rural areas where there are no water pipes and no hydrants: firefighters must bring their water with them, and then refill their trucks from nearby water sources.

T’ai chi classes enter third year

Wed, 29 Oct 2003 08:30:00 -0500

First published in The Equity, Oct. 29, 2003.

SHAWVILLE — T’ai chi classes have started up again at the Shawville Lions Hall.

This is the third year that the slow-moving Chinese martial art, which is popular as a form of low-impact exercise, has been taught in Shawville.

Classes began Tuesday evening, Oct. 7 and continue weekly. They cost $50 for a set of eight classes, which are offered several times a year.

About 25 to 30 students normally take the class, says Louise Ahern, who handles the organization and registration.

Instructor Tim Gordon, who says he’s been teaching t’ai chi for eight or nine years, is impressed with the students here, most of whom have been regulars since the beginning.

“(It’s a) large, enthusiastic crowd. I love coming here to teach,” says Gordon, who lives in Burnstown, Ont., south of Renfrew.

For the first time, Gordon is offering an intermediate class for those regulars who, after several series of classes, have gotten enough experience under their belts.

On the first night of classes, Gordon ran the students, newcomers and regulars alike — including an Equity reporter with no small amount of trepidation — through some of the more basic moves. After that, he took the regulars through a series of 108 moves for the intermediate course.

One newcomer expressed amazement that she would be able to remember them all.

Norbert Senf, who lives in Greermount, has been taking the classes since the beginning. He signed up out of curiosity and a desire to stay active.

“I sort of knew what t’ai chi was, but I wasn’t really familiar with it,” he says.

But after a few classes, Senf really took to it.

“I liked it a lot,” he says. “I’m getting older, and I’m starting to feel my boddy. It’s a really good way to stay loose, do some stretching.”

Senf enjoys the support they get from doing it as a group, and the confidence that comes with repetition and practice.

Gordon suggests another reason for the classes’ appeal.

“I think it’s a cultural adventure. It’s kind of a unique thing to be doing,” he says.

St. John’s Reptiles of the Northwest

Tue, 01 Jul 2003 15:51:07 -0500

First published in Ark’Type, Aug.-Sept.-Oct. 2003.

Reptiles of the Northwest
by Alan St. John
Lone Pine, 2002. Softcover, 272 pp. ISBN 1-55105-349-7

(image) Regional field guides generally beat the Audubon or Peterson guides hands-down when it comes to descriptions of local ranges, subspecies, and habitat. Some guides provide only limited information in the interest of keeping their size down, sacrificing their usefulness as a reference for their pocketability (e.g. MacCullough’s ROM Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario). Other guides provide authoritative information in rich, comprehensive quantities, but in a thick book that is kind of hard to carry with you — they’re more textbooks than field guides (e.g. Harding’s Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region or Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes). Both methods produce good field guides; it’s just a matter of which kind of guide you need: pocketable or definitive.

Alan St. John’s very fine Reptiles of the Northwest manages to maintain its pocketability (and therefore its usefulness in the field) without sacrificing as much, in terms of information, as other guides. It does skimp a bit on information about the animals themselves; facts about their diet, reproduction and behaviour are condensed into a paragraph each. But this is by no means a meagre book. Instead, it is a field guide worthy of the name that focuses on where and how to find reptiles in northwestern North America and how to identify them. It provides very good subspecies data — a rare thing nowadays, when it’s fashionable to deprecate subspecies in favour of elevating them to full species or writing them off as undiagnosable variants. For example, since I breed the rascals, I was glad to learn how to determine the different subspecies of Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer). And, in addition to excellent, full-colour range maps, there is photography so beautifully staged and lit that you want to buy them as prints and frame them — including such gems as photos of tiny baby horned lizards (Phrynosoma) and of a Red-spotted Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis concinnus) swallowing a very toxic Rough-skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa).

Most of all, I enjoyed the field notes at the end of each species description, in which St. John tells a personal story about finding the animal in question in the wild (often for the purpose of photographing it for this book). These entertaining tales make Reptiles of the Northwest one of the most unique field guides I have encountered in years, and reminds us that a field guide is really about searching for, encountering and interacting with animals in the field — and this point is ably illustrated by the often-funny photos of snakes dangling off someone’s ear or lizards biting someone’s hand. Highly recommended.

The ROM Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario

Wed, 31 Jul 2002 15:35:43 -0500

First published in The OHS News 92 (July 2002).

The ROM Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario
by Ross D. MacCullough
McClelland & Stewart, 2002. Softcover, 168 pp. ISBN 0-7710-7651-7

(image) Ontarians have not had a field guide to their reptiles and amphibians for some time, at least not since Bob Johnson’s Familiar Reptiles and Amphibians of Ontario (1989). Whereas Johnson’s little book was illustrated with black-and-white sketches that may or may not have resembled the actual animal in question, this new pocket guide is a showcase for excellent herp photography, giving each species native to Ontario three full-colour photographs on the facing page of each written description.

It’s important to remember that this is a field guide, focused on the identification of wildlife in the field, and as such is not terribly in-depth — after all, it’s supposed to fit in your pocket! Each species is limited to a page of description and a page of photographs, a format which, for the most part, works rather well. Information is basic (identification, habitat, diet, reproduction), concise and, for the most part, accurate.

But brevity can be risky, and errors can sometimes creep in. Describing Butler’s Garter Snakes as “more slender” than Common Garter Snakes (p. 130) is, in my experience, a mistake; and the description of the Fowler’s Toad’s call as simply “shorter” than that of the American Toad (p. 68) is not correct either. Nor is there any distinction between the Eastern and Red-sided subspecies of the Common Garter; descriptions are at the species level, and different subspecies are not always distinguished.

Common names definitely suffer from the focus on the species level, as “Eastern Racer” and “Eastern Ratsnake” are used, rather than the more commonly used subspecies names of “Blue Racer” and “Black Rat Snake”. Common names generally follow the names set out in SSAR’s Scientific and Standard English Names of Amphibians and Reptiles of North America North of Mexico (2000), rather than the more familiar and widely used names found in the controversial competing list put out by Joe Collins’s Centre for North American Herpetology.

In spite of the real space limitations, I would have liked to have seen descriptions of frog and toad calls and of amphibian eggs, which are dealt with only occasionally (larvae and tadpoles are well represented in the photographs), because in my experience eggs and calls are encountered often enough that having an answer in a field guide would have been a real help.

Those wanting to learn more about our native herpetofauna would do well to consult the excellent Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region by James H. Harding (1997). But, since that book is too large to tuck into your bag or pocket, grab this little book instead if you’re heading out into the field and need to know what it is you’ve just found.

Pelee Island Field Trip Report

Fri, 21 Jun 2002 18:20:04 -0500

First published in The OHS News 92 (July 2002). On Victoria Day weekend, 23 crazy herpers from Ontario, Quebec and Michigan travelled to Pelee Island to stay at the Wilds of Pelee Island Outdoor Centre for Conservation, where they would help restore habitat and build hibernation and nesting sites for endangered reptiles and amphibians, and perhaps to catch a glance of the elusive Blue Racer (Coluber constrictor foxii). In spite of forecasts calling for rain throughout the weekend and rather cold temperatures, we did pretty well. While it was quite chilly, the weather obliged us by raining only at night (though this was a problem for some of us with less than optimal tents). While the total number of reptiles spotted was somewhat lower than last year, that was mostly as a result of a change in our activities: we omitted a survey of the Centre property and a check of the tin and boards along a lane across from the Stone Road Alvar Nature Reserve — both of which produced copious numbers of Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) and Brown Snakes (Storeria dekayi) last year. (By the way, about one-third of the garter snakes on Pelee Island are melanistic.) Because we weren’t consciously looking for these two species, we only came up with a handful of them. The garter snakes were usually none too happy to see us, especially the melanistics, which I’ve always found to be larger and more aggressive on the Island. And we missed finding adult Lake Erie Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon insularum) — we found lots of them mating along the road last year, only a few hundred metres from the ferry dock — but found a number of juveniles, both last year’s young and those a year older, both of which still had their patterns. But that was more than made up for the fact that we found more Eastern Fox Snakes (Elaphe gloydi) this year than last — including at least two juveniles born the previous year and some magnificent adults that had not yet been tagged. Fox Snakes are by far my favourite rat snake: not only are these snakes beautiful, with their black saddles on a straw-yellow background and red heads, but, at least on Pelee Island, Fox Snakes are almost universally tame. In my two visits to Pelee, I’ve seen approximately 20 captured Fox Snakes, and while some of them have musked upon capture, only one has ever tried to bite (and that was a juvenile in shed, caught during our 2001 trip). To have such a large snake to be as tame as a captive Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata guttata) from the point of capture is quite remarkable, even more so when you consider that other members of the genus Elaphe aren’t quite so laid back! It is therefore a real tragedy that the Eastern Fox Snake is in such trouble; while plentiful on Pelee Island, their range — basically, along the shores of Lakes Erie and Michigan, 80 per cent of which is in Ontario — is both limited and vulnerable. And we did see a Racer! Well, some of us did. And even for many of us who saw one, it was “see” rather than “catch” (and I myself didn’t even see it). Not ten minutes before the Ottawa crowd had to leave the site (a tree farm) to catch the noon ferry on Monday, Stewart spotted one in tall grass, but in spite of the efforts of the entire herping party, who fanned out to try and do a systematic search, the snake eluded us. I was going to say that even that was better than the previous year, when we saw nothing at all, but then, on Tuesday morning, when most of our expeditionary force had gone home, the remaining group caught two Blue Racers and four more Eastern Fox Snakes. They had missed the 7:00 a.m. f[...]

A Tale of Two Snakes

Tue, 04 Dec 2001 16:28:58 -0500

First published in Chorus 18, no. 10 (Dec. 2001). Two of the snakes we have cared for would have interesting stories to tell. They can’t talk, of course, so I’ll tell their stories for them. Both were snakes that came in from the wild under extraordinary circumstances. It’s amazing that either of them managed to survive. One we have kept, one we have released: when you read their stories, you’ll understand why. The first snake was found in a head of lettuce in the produce section of a Toronto-area supermarket. He was very small, very frightened, and very pugnacious. He was immediately rescued by local hobbyists who were determined to prevent him from being used by the supermarket as evidence against the suppliers on whose trucks they supposed he arrived — they didn’t expect he would survive long as evidence. All parties presumed that he had arrived on a food shipment from the southern U.S., and on that basis, this small snake with bright burgundy blotches was identified as a Prairie Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster calligaster). Florence, hearing this story, decided that she wanted to adopt this snake, and the person looking after him was happy to oblige her. So, in early May 2000 I brought him back with me to Ottawa. He was small, still very shy, but not aggressive, and he seemed to be eating well. But he didn’t look like a Prairie Kingsnake. I knew they were somewhat variable and supposed that he was from a locality with which I was unfamiliar. But, while I wasn’t in a position to second-guess the identification, I was nevertheless not confident about it. I asked some friends who had more expertise with native species, and they were all pretty sure, based in part on the picture accompanying this article, that he was, in fact, an Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum), a species native to Ontario that is protected by provincial legislation. Just to be doubly sure, I counted the mid-body scale rows on a shed skin and consulted field guides. Prairie Kingsnakes have between 25 and 27 scale rows; Eastern Milk Snakes have between 19 and 23 rows. This snake has 19 scale rows. He’s an Eastern Milk Snake. Eastern Milk Snakes have a reputation among Ontario reptile enthusiasts for being difficult captives that refuse to eat in captivity. Those who have caught wild milk snakes and brought them home have invariably watched them starve to death slowly. This fact alone should discourage anyone from taking one home to keep. (To say nothing of the fact that they’re protected by provincial law.) Leave them in the wild! As for ours, we applied for and received a licence from the Ministry of Natural Resources. We didn’t know where he came from, and he had been in contact with a lot of domesticated reptiles, so releasing him into the wild was not a viable option. A difference of even a few kilometres could have meant introducing him into a distinct genetic population, thus messing up the natural gene pool. And while he could have come from near the supermarket itself, he could also have come, by truck, from anywhere in the Eastern Milk Snake’s natural range — essentially, anywhere in northeastern North America. So he stayed with us. Almost as if on cue, once identified as a milk snake, he began to behave like one, and started refusing to eat. In one two-month period he ate only one pinky mouse. We began to worry. Mike Rankin suggested that we provide very dark and secure hiding places and leave him alone when offering food. We gave the milk snake an inverted flower pot with a small hole in the bottom in September 2000, and fed him in there. [...]

Questions About Ribbon Snakes in Captivity

Mon, 01 Oct 2001 20:34:56 -0500

First published in Chorus 18, no. 8 (Oct. 2001). When I first had the idea to write a short article about keeping ribbon snakes in captivity, my plan was to explain why ribbon snakes were a poor “beginner” snake in spite of their low price at pet stores. I would have based that argument on the herpetocultural literature on ribbon snakes and on our own experience with our single Western Ribbon Snake, which to date has made for a less than satisfactory captive. But things have gotten a bit more complicated since then, and now I’m left with more questions about ribbon snakes than answers. Which is probably a good thing. There are two species of ribbon snake: the Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus), with four subspecies, one of which, the Northern Ribbon (T. s. septentrionalis), is native to our area; and the Western (Thamnophis proximus), with six subspecies, ranging from Wisconsin to Costa Rica. Biochemically they seem less closely related to other garter snakes than do some water snakes, and they are certainly each other’s closest relative: speciation has occurred quite recently, and they were only recognized as separate species in 1962 when they were discovered to occur in the same area without interbreeding. Telling the difference between an Eastern and a Western Ribbon Snake is quite easy: Western Ribbon Snakes have two sometimes fused white spots on the top of their heads; Eastern Ribbon Snakes do not. Ribbon snakes can be differentiated from garter snakes by their overall shape: they’re very elongate; their side stripes are higher up on the body (on the third and fourth scale rows — most garters’ stripes are on the second and third rows); and there is no black between their labial (lip) scales. While those of us who spend time in the field are likely to be quite well acquainted with the Eastern (Northern) Ribbon Snake, it’s the Western Ribbon Snake that is commonly found in pet stores. It, along with the Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), is one of the few North American snakes still heavily collected for the pet trade. Ribbon snakes found in pet stores are almost certainly wild snakes; captive breeding, if it occurs, is only taking place on an incidental basis. Their low price — between $20 and $40 in local pet stores — may lead some to think that a ribbon snake might make a good starter pet. Of course, as is the case with those $40 baby Green Iguanas (Iguana iguana), this is simply not the case: just because an animal is inexpensive does not mean that it is good for beginners. Fortunately, ribbon snakes are not extremely difficult to keep per se, but their diet and their behaviour make them hard to recommend for beginners. Their diet is limited to anurans and fish in the wild, which means a diet of fish in captivity, since frogs and toads ought not to be used as feeder animals unless all else fails. A fish diet is manageable (provided you can handle the smell), but there are a few potential wrinkles: live fish can be difficult to obtain sometimes (and there are parasite risks); fish fillet isn’t nutritionally complete; and certain kinds of fish contain an enzyme that destroys Vitamin B1, leading to vitamin deficiencies that can kill the snake. A friend has managed to get both Northern and Western Ribbons to eat scented pinky mice; occasional mice certainly would help. An important note: unlike garter snakes, ribbon snakes will not normally eat earthworms. As for their behaviour, ribbon snakes are active and inquisitive, and as a result can make very good display snakes. But they can be quite nervous, and appare[...]

Some Notes on Wandering Garter Snakes

Sat, 01 Sep 2001 20:31:43 -0500

First published in The OHS News 89 (Sept. 2001). Wandering Garter Snakes (Thamnophis elegans vagrans) will never win any ophidian beauty contests. They are essentially gray or grayish-brown snakes with a black checkered pattern and three cream-coloured stripes (occasionally the side stripes are not visible). To hobbyists enamoured of tricoloured milk snakes or mountain kingsnakes, they must seem quite drab, though their appearance might appeal to those of us who appreciate subtler, more subdued patterns (such as Baird’s Rat Snakes or Gopher Snakes). But whatever you think of their appearance, these are nevertheless very interesting snakes. They are reckoned as being one of the best (if not the best) garter snakes to keep in captivity, and they are probably the least garter-like garter snake north of Mexico. Wandering Garter Snakes get their name from the belief that they tend to travel further from water than other garter snakes, but in fact studies have found them to be primarily a riparian habitat specialist. They are found at surprisingly high altitudes — they range from the Prairies to the West Coast, and cross the Rocky Mountains. The Wandering Garter is the widest-ranging of six subspecies of the Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans), and the only one found in Canada. It and the Coast Garter Snake (T. e. terrestris) are the only two that have any presence in the hobby — the red phase of the coast garter is spectacular and particularly coveted. But the coast garter is endemic to California, which prohibits the sale of all but a few native snakes, and as a result is a bit harder to find. I have had a pair of Wandering Garters since May 2000, and I have been struck by the differences between these snakes and other garters. One difference you notice right away when handling them. Normally, garter snakes tend to have less muscle tone than snakes that constrict. In hand, garters do not grip (which means that you have to be more careful when handling them), and they don’t feel as strong as a corn snake or a pine snake. Wandering Garters, on the other hand, have much better muscle tone than other garters. Their musculature is not nearly as good as that of my Pine Snakes, but it’s surprisingly strong for a natricine. There are reports that they may employ some form of constriction (though it may well only be a matter of pinning the prey), but I haven’t seen that in my specimens. Wandering Garters are well known for their diets. They have the broadest prey preferences of any natricine; in fact, they vie with Racers (Coluber constrictor) for having the widest prey preferences of any snake. In addition to the usual garter snake diet of fish, amphibians, and soft-bodied invertebrates, Wandering Garters will also eat any small vertebrate they can find, including mammals and reptiles. This has two implications for captivity. One, it’s extremely easy to get these snakes to eat mice. Mine leap from their hideboxes to grab fuzzy or hopper mice that are dropped into their cages; their feeding response is better than that of our rat snakes, and matches the recorded response of captive Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum), i.e., nearly instantaneous. And two, Wandering Garters eat other snakes. Captive Wandering Garters have eaten their cagemates, so they must be housed individually. They also appear to have the most toxic saliva of any garter snake. Garters are not rear-fanged, but they do have a Duvernoy’s gland and some do have enlarged rear teeth. Some people have reported redness and swelling after being bitten by[...]

Spotting the Spotted Turtle

Tue, 01 May 2001 16:06:59 -0500

First published in Chorus 18, no. 5 (May 2001). On the morning of April 13, 2001, six OARA members departed Ottawa for an undisclosed location in southwestern Ontario. They were Andrew Mott, Brian Oehring, Jeremy Pallas, Marc St. Pierre, Florence Lehmann and myself, crammed with our gear into a rented minivan for a long road trip. Once there, we would join Steve Marks, Mike Elioff, Dave Smith, Stewart Stick and Drew and Killian Hamilton to search for the Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata). We were participants in a scientific study (under permit) to see whether this species was found at the site in question. While a substantial number of turtles had been present a quarter century ago, more recent surveys had found few, if any. Last year, the first year of our survey, only two turtles had been found: an old female last spring and a male in June. We didn’t know if a viable breeding colony was present — the male was found a kilometre from the female’s site — but we were nonetheless hopeful. Steve, who was organizing this survey, now in its second year, has been very careful not to mention publicly where this location is, and has been screening the people who were able to attend. And for good reason. Spotted Turtles, like other members of the genus Clemmys, are cute and interesting turtles with personality, and would make great pets if their conservation status wasn’t a problem. They are listed as a species of special concern by COSEWIC and are protected by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. They are also protected over most of their range. Even so, with the wholesale price in the United States for a Spotted Turtle being around $150, poaching is a concern. It’s happened in Ontario. And Steve, knowing that this was a very sensitive population, is taking no chances. As for the weekend in question, we weren’t sure whether the weather would cooperate. Certainly the forecast wasn’t promising: cloudy skies and lots of rain throughout the weekend, high winds on Friday, and even snow on Saturday morning. If that forecast was borne out, I feared that we might not see any reptiles at all that weekend. “Oh well,” I thought to myself. “At least we might get a chance to monitor some amphibians.” I was not optimistic; my only hope was that given such crummy conditions, even a brief patch of sun would bring everything out to bask. So I was hoping for just a bit of sun. But, as it turned out, the weather was more than good to us. The weekend was cold, with overnight temperatures near freezing, and there was often high cloud cover. But it didn’t rain at all, and the afternoons were sunny enough, and warm enough, that the reptiles became active. We saw a lot of them; I myself saw or heard nine species of reptile or amphibian on Saturday, and I didn’t see them all! The trip to the site was long, and delayed somewhat by a short and pleasant side trip we took just after lunch. As we neared Peterborough, we noticed that the Indian River Reptile Zoo was open. Suddenly our keenness to arrive at the survey site on time evaporated, and we spent ninety minutes mucking around the zoo. I personally hadn’t been there since the previous June, and had lots of fun taking pictures of some of my favourite rattlesnakes. The zoo also had a display of Spotted Turtles, which was useful for those of us who had never seen one before. By 7:00 pm we had arrived at the site, and Steve, who was beginning to wonder where the hell we were, told us what they had seen that afternoon: several Norther[...]

Domestic Mice as Food for Butler’s Garter Snakes

Thu, 01 Mar 2001 19:49:04 -0500

First published in The OHS News 88 (March 2001). Nowhere in the recent herpetological or herpetocultural literature regarding Butler’s Garter Snakes, Thamnophis butleri, are rodents referred to as a potential food source, either in captivity or in the wild.1 Field studies have confirmed that earthworms make up the overwhelming proportion of a Butler’s Garter Snake’s diet, followed by leeches; laboratory studies have shown that they also react to toads, small frogs, red-backed salamanders and small fish (Catling and Freedman 1980, Rossman, Ford and Seigel 1996). Although Butler’s Garters are clearly earthworm specialists in the wild, many herpetocultural authorities, perhaps relying on dated sources that refer briefly to several prey items (e.g. Ditmars 1939, Logier 1958 and Wright and Wright 1957), seem unclear about their diet. Perlowin (1992) makes no specific comments about the species’s diet, referring only in passing to chopped earthworms and feeder guppies for neonates. Sweeney (1992) is uncertain, saying that the diet “is thought to include earthworms, leeches, small frogs and salamanders” in the wild. Rossi (1992), on the other hand, states that “earthworms are definitely the preferred food” but allows for small fish and amphibians as well. None of these authorities mention rodents. Yet we have managed to maintain six specimens of Butler’s Garters on a diet that either includes, or is mostly or even entirely based upon, domestic mice. Jeff imported two adult T. butleri and four captive-born neonates in the summer of 2000. (Two of those neonates were later given to Jonathan.) Since earthworms are low in calcium (but see Rossi and Rossi 1995), and not always readily available in the winter, Jeff wanted to switch his Butler’s Garters to mice, as is frequently done with common garter snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis. He started the two adults with worm-scented pinky mice, and the four neonates with worm-scented pinky mouse legs and tails. All six T. butleri ate readily. After several feedings, he began trying unscented mice or mouse parts. One of the adults readily ate unscented pinky mice; the other would only take mice if they were scented with earthworm. In general, the neonates would take unscented pinky legs and tails, although some of them were better feeders than others. When he got them, Jonathan gave his two neonates a more varied diet. Pinky parts were offered at only one quarter of the feedings, chopped nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, was offered at roughly one half of the feedings, and fish fillet (ocean perch from the supermarket) was offered at the remaining one quarter of the feedings. Supplemental calcium and vitamins B1 and D3 were added occasionally. The varied diet allowed for a rough comparison of feeding responses. Not surprisingly, chopped nightcrawler elicited the strongest feeding response, followed by pinky parts, then fish fillet. It was somewhat surprising that mice seem to have been preferred over fish; more on that momentarily. In general, feeding response for these little gluttons was strong no matter what was offered, in sharp contrast to Sweeney’s (1992) comments that “in captivity the snake can prove to be a choosy feeder, often accepting only earthworms to begin with and sometimes even refusing those.” With the onset of winter, Jeff’s four remaining T. butleri began to refuse food more frequently. Jonathan’s neonates, on the other hand, showed no sign of refusing food, even though the[...]

Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes

Tue, 05 Dec 2000 15:24:27 -0500

First published in The OHS News 87 (Dec. 2000). Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution and Natural Historyby John E. Werler and James R. DixonUniversity of Texas Press, 2000. Hardcover, xv + 437 pp. + plates.ISBN 0-292-79130-5 Work began on this book twenty years ago, the authors inform us in the preface. Even taking into account the fact that for most of that period, the authors had other responsibilities and could not have worked full-time on this project, that seems an awfully long time to spend on a single work. Looking at the book, though, it is easy to see why. It has all the usual sections you would expect from such a guide: a general introduction, an identification key, a note on venom, an extensive bibliography and, of course, species and subspecies accounts. But those accounts have a level of detail and thoroughness that are unmatched by any other guide, including Tennant’s Field Guide to Texas Snakes, and each gives an in-depth survey of the scientific knowledge of the snake in question. With so much attention paid to each of Texas’s 109 species and subspecies, no wonder it took so long. The range maps, which astonishingly were not generated by computer, are extraordinarily detailed and precise. Instead of just a shaded area covering a snake’s general range, dots show precisely where specimens of a given snake were found, and the maps are large enough and detailed enough to show rivers and county boundaries. In southwest Texas, interestingly, the dots are frequently densely packed along lines — presumably the highways along which the specimens were collected! One point of confusion is that the shaded areas around the dots indicate the subspecies, while the dots themselves indicate the species. Thus, for example, the dots on the maps for the Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki) and the Desert Kingsnake (L. g. splendida) are identical, except that the shading for each indicates which dots belong to which subspecies. A related wrinkle is that, unlike the Gulf field guides, zones of integradation are not shown: a locality belongs to one subspecies or the other, with no room for ambiguity. Then there are the illustrations — 208 colour photographs, most of which are large and many of which are breathtaking, and dozens of line illustrations. No skimping here. Taxonomy is always a sure point of contention. Nitpickers will certainly find enough reason to complain, since this book does not always follow the standard common and scientific names established by Collins. The authors do not necessarily follow the logic that allopatric populations are distinct species, and make calls on a case by case basis. Whatever they’re called, the snakes remain the snakes, and it should make no difference to the usefulness of this book. Texas Snakes is the best guide to North American snakes that I have yet seen, and though its sheer bulk makes it of limited use as a field guide, it is strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in the snakes in question. [...]

Holman’s Fossil Snakes of North America

Tue, 05 Dec 2000 14:33:53 -0500

First published in The OHS News 87 (Dec. 2000).

Fossil Snakes of North America: Origin, Evolution, Distribution, Paleoecology
by J. Alan Holman
Indiana University Press, 2000. Hardcover, xi + 357 pp. ISBN 0-253-33721-6

(image) The study of fossil snakes is not nearly as accessible as you might expect. It’s highly specialized work that doesn’t excite the popular imagination nearly as much as a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. The following quotation from Fossil Snakes of North America is instructive:

Fossil snakes usually occur in the form of disarticulated bones, mainly vertebrae and ribs, with a few cranial bones turning up now and then. Rarely, fossil snakes occur as essentially complete skeletons. The problem is that these specimens are usually at least partially embedded in hard rock, which obscures the important diagnostic characters of the individual bones. For this reason, most paleontologists who study snakes would rather have a perfectly preserved middle trunk vertebra than a complete skeleton embedded in rock. (p. 9)

Analyzing the characteristics of tiny snake vertebrae — now really, where’s the fun in that? Unfortunately it will be hard for popular interests in snakes and paleontology to converge: snakes are essentially delicate creatures that don’t fossilize well. Also, we like their pretty colours, which don’t fossilize at all.

All of which is not to fault this book, but it is cold water in the face for those anticipating something more, well, dinosaurish. This is a very dry and technical read: very thorough, lots and lots of detail, easily the reference on the subject, but there’s not much of a narrative to speak of. It does have quite a bit of interesting material. Almost all the North American snake fossils are from the Cenozoic era, and most are from the Pleistocene epoch. While some of the fossils are from extinct snake families, genera, or species, many are from modern taxa — sometimes in locations you wouldn’t expect. Fox snakes in Idaho! They were much more widespread once, but then, they would have had to have been, since their current range was once under a glacier.

You will learn more about the subtle differences in snake vertebrae than you probably ever wanted by reading this book. The shape of a snake’s vertebrae is diagnostic; hardly any other characteristics can be used by the paleontologist. This means that sometimes a fossil can only be tentatively assigned to a genus. It also means a somewhat different species concept.

Unless you’re extremely interested in the subject, this book is best left to specialists.

How Volunteer Organizations Work — And Why They Don’t

Fri, 01 Dec 2000 10:20:10 -0500

First published in The OHS News 87 (Dec. 2000). I’ve been volunteering my time for various organizations since I was sixteen. (That was silly of me, I know.) I’ve held executive positions on volunteer boards for about as long. By the time I was twenty I was cynical enough about it that I composed a little document called Crowe’s Laws of Meetings, which distilled all the wisdom I purported to have gleaned from several years of witnessing the shenanigans that took place at board meetings. “All meetings start fifteen minutes late”, “It’s easier to criticize someone else’s work than do your own — and at a meeting it’s hard to tell the difference”, and so forth. I lost the document years ago and I wish I hadn’t. Now this has nothing to do with the board meetings of the OHS (really!), but thinking about this makes me think about what some of those organizations were trying to do — when they weren’t figuring out new ways to impeach each other, that is. The greatest concern of any executive board on which I served was how to get the membership more involved in the activities of that organization. It seemed to us that no matter what we could come up with, trying to get the membership to “get involved” only seemed to leave us frustrated. Executive members are usually pretty committed to the cause (otherwise they wouldn’t be on the board), and so it’s easy to forget why someone not so committed would shell out the money to join an organization, and yet not participate. One mistake frequently made (which I think became Crowe’s Law Number 13) was to spend much newsletter space and meeting time begging the membership to get involved. In my opinion this always backfired: the more you ask the membership to get involved, the more you turn them off, I thought. Still, the frustration was understandable: we’d organize these big meetings and only a few people would turn up. (Nowadays I think a turnout of 10% or more of the membership is pretty good. If you think 15-20 people at an OHS meeting isn’t all that hot, try having only 15-20 people turn up, out of a total membership of 1,400!) The greatest challenge of any volunteer organization is what to do with its best resource: its members. How to get them, how to keep them, and how to make use of them. I think it’s a lot easier to attract new members than to keep the ones you have. A measure of success might be how many members end up paying for a second year’s membership dues. New members are probably the easiest to get active in an organization’s volunteer projects. The trick, both for the oldtimers who’ve been doing it forever and for the new blood, is to avoid mass burnout. Every volunteer needs a rest once in a while, but if too few try to do too much, they may all burn out at once — then what? So the question is not how to attract new members, but how to keep them and integrate them into the organization. In any new batch of members there will be some who are dead keen on volunteering lots of their time. The problem is figuring out what to do with them. Some organizations don’t have a clue. I’ll use myself as an example. About the same time I joined the OHS, I also joined a province-wide support group for the medical condition from which I suffer. Now, as you might have figured out by now, I’m a chronic volunteer — whenever[...]

Understanding Garter Snakes Through Their Diets

Sun, 01 Oct 2000 19:45:26 -0500

First published in Chorus 17, no. 8 (Oct. 2000). Garter snakes are known for eating a variety of endothermic prey, such as amphibians (especially frogs and toads), fish, earthworms, and even slugs and leeches. But it’s more complicated than that. Several garter snake species specialize on only a few of these prey items and refuse the others; other species will eat all of these and more. For example, some people may not know that a few species will eat small mammals or birds, which makes it possible to feed them mice in captivity. Not only that, but the Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans) has an exceptionally broad range of prey preferences: it also likes to eat reptiles, including snakes (so they must be kept separately in captivity). Then there are the exceptions, like the Mexican Alpine Blotched Garter Snake (Thamnophis scalaris), which is known only to eat lizards. So it’s a mistake to assume that all garters eat the same kind of food. It’s important to pay close attention to what garters eat, especially if you’re thinking about keeping one in captivity. What I will do in this article is shed a little light on the complexity and variation in garter snakes’ diets, both in the wild and in captivity. In my presentation at the OARA meeting on September 12, I used Rossi and Rossi’s (1995) division of North American garter snakes into three categories by prey preference as a way of summarizing the genus: the big, nasty, long-headed, bug-eyed aquatic fish and amphibian specialists; the small, docile, short-headed worm and slug specialists; and, in between, several terrestrial species that, in Rossi and Rossi’s words, “will eat almost anything.” This third category of garter snake is the one with which we are most familiar, because they are common snakes with large ranges, and because they are the most likely to turn up in the pet trade. But we have to be careful about saying that they will eat anything. In fact, these generalists are very much like the two categories of specialists: they all make use of the prey available in their habitat. It’s just that the generalists are found in many different kinds of habitat, and so have developed a wide range of prey preferences. In fact, as Richard Seigel points out in his chapter on ecology in The Garter Snakes: Evolution and Ecology, the monograph he co-authored with Douglas Rossman and Neil Ford, a garter snake’s habitat has a bigger impact on its diet than its species — and other factors, such as season and age, are also significant influences. When you think about it, the reason why some species of snakes have specialized in a certain prey is because they have specialized in a given habitat, which eliminates other options for food. Diet as a Function of Habitat Take, for example, one of the pointy-nosed aquatic garters, the Sierra Garter Snake (Thamnophis couchii). This big, nasty snake is found in aquatic habitat in central California and Nevada, and specializes in fish and amphibians, actively hunting them even underwater. While this snake is just as big as other garter snakes that do eat mice, it refuses to eat even fish-scented mice in captivity. Because it is simply not found away from water, it does not prey on mammals in the wild. On the other hand, the Santa Cruz Garter Snake (Thamnophis atratus), another west coast species that is closely related to T. couchii, is less [...]

The Art of War on the Online Forums

Fri, 01 Sep 2000 10:10:57 -0500

First published in The OHS News 86 (Sept. 2000). Everyone who has spent any time on the forum has their own horror stories to tell. Here are some of mine. I once got involved in a verbal fracas that started when someone asked what kind of snake it was that he just caught, which turned out to be a scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea). Some of us argued that, since scarlet snakes are obscenely difficult to keep, it should be released at once; but others thought there was nothing wrong with keeping it, and gave a grand total of two sentences’ worth of care advice. The ensuing fight went on long after the person who found the snake announced that he had already released it. Or how about the snotty e-mail I received from someone who had asked where he could catch black rat snakes; I had suggested that they could be bought very cheaply (for the record, he wasn’t in Ontario), so why collect from the wild? His comments, dripping with bitter sarcasm, went along these lines: well, why don’t you buy me one, then. And then there was the time I got into a positively ugly argument on the garter snake forum over whether or not garter snakes are rear-fanged. I said they weren’t; others said they were, and I asked them to back up their assertions. When someone argued that garter snakes were rear-fanged because all colubrids were rear-fanged, I pointed out that she had misread the evidence she was using to back up her argument. Things went downhill from there; I was called a liar, and several regulars swore off the forum. If you’ve spent any time on the forums, you’re sure to have similar stories, and I know for a fact that some stories are much more horrific than mine. What’s going on here? Why does a discussion about animals turn into a gladitorial free-for-all? Here is my best guess as to why these things happen on the forums. 1. Some herpers weren’t on their high-school debating team — which is to say that they don’t know how to have a polite argument. The most important lesson that can be learned from a debating team or a model parliament is to take seriously, and respect, the opposing viewpoint. After all, in some debate competitions, you’re not sure which side of the topic you’re going to take until the last minute! This forces you to consider both sides — a skill that would be useful on the forums. 2. Some herpers like being experts, and hate being told they’re wrong. Steve Marks has a saying about being an expert that reminds us not to take the label too seriously. It’s advice worth taking, because too many herpers put too much of their ego into their perceived herpetocultural expertise. When you invest that much ego, being corrected is not taken as a learning experience, but as an affront to an all-important reputation. No wonder it leads to all sorts of hostile responses to innocently phrased statements. 3. Disagreements get mistaken for personal attacks. For example, the person who misread the material and thought that all colubrids were rear-fanged was personally insulted when I disagreed with her. All I did was take her evidence and show, point by point, how she had misread it. A perfectly valid (if forceful) debating strategy, but one which she found a bit hard to take. Thus the response that I was being personally vindictive, or lying, or both. On arguments that hinge on opinio[...]

Two New Corn Snake Manuals

Fri, 12 May 2000 14:14:36 -0500

First published in The OHS News 85 (Spring 2000).

The Corn Snake Manual
by Bill Love and Kathy Love
Advanced Vivarium Systems, 2000. Paperback, 128 pp. ISBN 1-88277054-4

Corn Snakes
by R. D. Bartlett and Patricia Bartlett
Barron’s, 1999. Paperback, 48 pp. ISBN 0-7641-1120-5

(image) (image) Corn snakes, for snakes that are comparatively easy to keep — corn snakes are to herpetoculture what boiling water is to cooking: screw that up and you probably shouldn’t try anything else — are a lot more complicated than they used to be. In 1991, Michael J. McEachern’s Color Guide to Corn Snakes described a handful of single- and double-recessive mutations and a couple of distinctive locality morphs. Now there are more morphs than I myself can keep track of, and it’s kind of hard to figure out what they all are.

Fortunately, we now have, after some delay, The Corn Snake Manual, by Bill and Kathy Love. Intended as a successor to McEachern’s Color Guide and Keeping and Breeding Corn Snakes, the Loves’ book is easily the best and most comprehensive care guide on the shelves (though the two by McEachern are still worth getting if you can still find them.) Each section covers its subject with an amazing thoroughness: a lengthy treatise on brumation; a thoughtful couple of pages on stress; even a serious investigation of commercial snake sausages (ick!) under feeding. That thoroughness also carries over to the lavishly illustrated section covering colour and pattern morphs: we not only get a picture and a brief description, but also the history of how that given morph came about (and by whom). So now I discover that a pewter is a combination of bloodred and charcoal (anerythristic B), that butter is an amelanistic caramel, that a milk snake phase is a selectively bred Miami phase… . With so much useful and interesting information in this book, every hobbyist with corn snakes simply has to have it.

But for someone just starting out, particularly if he or she is younger, I might suggest that he or she start with the Bartletts’ (them again!) short book, Corn Snakes. It’s short and to the point, covers all the necessary information in only 48 pages, and is well and clearly laid out. For beginners, The Corn Snake Manual might be like an oversize mouse to a young corn snake — nutritious, eagerly attacked, but a bit too much to digest all at once.

Tennant and Bartlett’s Snakes of North America

Tue, 01 Feb 2000 11:01:59 -0500

First published in The OHS News 84 (Winter 2000). Snakes of North America: Eastern and Central Regionsby Alan Tennant and R. D. BartlettGulf, 2000. Paperback, xxv + 588 pp. ISBN 0-87719-307-XSnakes of North America: Western Regionby R. D. Bartlett and Alan TennantGulf, 2000. Paperback, xvi + 312 pp. ISBN 0-87719-312-6 Snake nuts will want to know about these books. If, like me, they are particularly fond of North American snakes, they may already own copies of the three field guides already published by Gulf: A Field Guide to Snakes of Florida and A Field Guide to Texas Snakes (the latter already in its second edition), both by Alan Tennant, and A Field Guide to Snakes of California by Philip Brown. Brown’s guide is not as satisfying as the two by Tennant, which provide a heady amount of information on each subspecies, more than could be found in any other field guide. And while Texas and Florida have a lot of snakes between the two of them, I couldn’t help but want even more — information on the snakes that didn’t live in either state. Now, in two new volumes, one of which is over 600 pages, those wants have been fulfilled. Snakes of North America, in particular the volume on eastern and central regions, takes many of its species accounts more or less directly from the books on Texas and Florida, and the overlap can be considerable. The volume on the western region, on which collaborator Dick Bartlett is the lead author, is considerably slimmer. Not having Tennant’s detailed subspecies accounts from his previous books to draw upon, the western volume covers snakes on a species-by-species (rather than subspecies-by-subspecies) basis, leaving most subspecies with a paragraph of description at most. Are western subspecies less well-defined than eastern subspecies? Less detailed and slimmer, the western volume is more spartan: it lacks the eastern volume’s bibliography and glossary, too. Some tradeoffs have to be made when moving to the continental scale. Chapters on habitat and identification keys would be too unwieldy in this context, and the maps suffer a similar loss of detail and precision. The maps are particularly problematic in the eastern and central volume for Canadian readers, as they quite often do not include Canada at all (though their Canadian range is discussed in the text). On the western side, the maps show all races of a given species at once, which makes them more difficult to decipher. On the plus side, the photographs of every single North American subspecies (some of which have several photos) are stunning, and represent a visual resource impossible to find anywhere else. The attraction of having a complete reference on the snakes of North America cannot be understated. Even if you’ve already shelled out for the previous guides, I very much doubt that snake nuts will be able to resist. Curse these insidious Gulf people. [...]

Mattison’s Keeping and Breeding Snakes

Tue, 30 Nov 1999 10:32:46 -0500

First published in The OHS News 83 (Fall 1999).

Keeping and Breeding Snakes
by Chris Mattison
Blandford, 1999. Hardcover, 224 pp. ISBN 0-7137-2709-8

(image) The first edition of Chris Mattison’s Keeping and Breeding Snakes appeared in 1988. This second, “fully revised” edition is no mere updating of an earlier work; it is essentially an entirely new book. Its emphases have changed and its text — especially its species accounts — has been rewritten. Gone are the tables with breeding information, and the section on keeping venomous snakes has been reduced to almost an afterthought. The new photographs are nothing less than spectacular, in far more vivid colour than in previous Blandford offerings. In all, the package is quite attractive.

Mattison’s coverage of boas and pythons is very comprehensive, even listing taxa not normally available to the hobby. The exception is his coverage of sand boas, limited to a single species. His coverage of colubrids, in one long chapter, is more uneven, emphasizing the more commonly kept varieties. Rat snake enthusiasts will be very happy with his comprehensive coverage of the genus Elaphe and its allies. The book’s coverage of kingsnakes is less detailed; and only a few, larger subspecies of milk snake are covered, the smaller, “bootlace-sized” subspecies being dismissed as “a waste of time”. Other colubrids get even shorter shrift — a surprising omission is the rough green snake — and several other infrequently kept colubrids present in the first edition have been removed altogether, a decision perhaps understandable if the book is intended for an audience of adult beginners. Still, I wonder why a section on the care of snakes from small families (Typhlopidae, Loxocemidae, Xenopeltidae, Tropidopheidae) was included; surely even glossy snakes (omitted) are more commonly kept than blind snakes (included)! Troubling, too, is the decision to cover only western hognoses, which can feed on mice, without referring to eastern and southern hognoses, which won’t. Mattison makes no mention of the genus’s general toad-feeding preferences, and the omission may confuse a beginner.

Nevertheless, this book is tremendously useful. The section on general husbandry is thorough and, generally speaking, leaves very little unsaid. In tone and style the book is more appropriate for adult beginners than for children, but even experienced keepers will find Mattison’s refreshing perspective of value. It’s worth having, even if you own the previous edition.