A Common King Snake, and What's Inside the Now-Vacant Owl Nest Box

by Dan Weisz

I was watering the plants on my back porch a few mornings ago when I was startled by movement along the patio wall.  I had watered and disturbed a Common Kingsnake who was out presumably searching for a snack.

Friend or Foe?  When I surprised the snake (and he surprised me), he began using his tongue to find some clues as to what it was that disturbed his morning.  Snakes have poor eyesight and limited hearing, but have an excellent sense of “smell”.  They use their tongues to pick up the scent of prey and predators in the area.  Their tongue collects chemical particles in the air that are analyzed by the Jacobsen’s Organ in the roof of their mouth.

After it felt safe, the snake slowly began exploring his area again.  You can see the reflection of my flower pots in his eyes.  The kingsnake’s scales are smooth and glossy in appearance.

At one point, he was doubled up on himself.  Kingsnakes  come in a variety of colors but in the Sonoran Desert they are usually a dark snake with narrower light bands going around its body.  Here, the yellow bands seem to form triangles along his sides.  Most references indicate our desert kingsnakes reach lengths of approximately 3.5 feet.  This snake was longer than four of the bricks of my patio wall which I later measured at 16” each.  That means the snake was at least 5.5 feet long!

The king snake is a constrictor and is not venomous.  Kingsnakes are found throughout the United States and they are generalists in habitat, and are opportunistic feeders who will eat many things (including rattlesnakes).  I was happy to see this guy knowing he is helping to keep the pack rats and other rodents around my house on their toes.

As the kingsnake was leaving my porch and heading to the thick cover of a nearby jojoba bush, I could see the different shape of its belly scales.  A snake’s scales are made of keratin, the same material our hair and fingernails are made of.  I learned that a snake hatches with a fixed number of scales.  The scales do not increase in number nor decrease as the snake ages.  They do grow larger in size and may change shape with each moult. 

I thought it was time to clean out the Western Screech Owl’s nest box.  While the owls have not returned to the box, I do hear them infrequently in the early morning hours, so I know they are around.  Here’s the box with its side flipped open.  The hole to the nest box is on the left side as you are looking at the box.  You can see the lightly colored wood chips I had put in the box as ‘nesting materials’ for the owl. 

This wood ships are now covered by a layer of gray debris that the owls left after two months of usage.  I don’t think they deserve to get their security deposit back.

Sifting though the gray matter, there were a number of pellets and a variety of limbs, feathers and bones.  If you can ID any of these, let me know.  

I’ve cleaned out the box and have placed it again in the mesquite tree, hoping for new tenants next spring.