Gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer) can be a bit startling to anyone encountering them in the wild, since these beneficial reptiles often grow to five feet long, while some stretching to eight feet have been recorded. Though many people mistake gopher snakes for rattlesnakes and kill them out of fear, the diet of a gopher snake makes this creature an ally, not an enemy -- it eats many small animals that cause problems for humans.
The No. 1 creature on the menu for a gopher snake is also the source of this snake’s name: gophers. These are this snake’s favorite meal, but if a gopher snake can’t find a gopher, there are plenty of other things he can eat. The snake routinely eats other small mammals, such as rabbits, kangaroo rats, voles, rats, mice and ground squirrels. A healthy population of gopher snakes helps to eliminate these and other pests that can damage crops and carry diseases, making the area more friendly to humans.
Along with rodents, gopher snakes may eat almost anything they can find and catch, as long as they can swallow it. Among their favorites are birds and eggs of any type. An adult gopher snake will consume fairly large animals, but the youngsters are restricted by their size and tend to eat smaller creatures such as lizards and insects. If they’re around wetlands, gopher snakes will also eat frogs.
Gopher snakes live wherever the hunting is good and can be found on the ground, under the ground or in bushes and trees. They’re quick to snatch up any food they find in any of these areas, and if the snake is unable to find anything to eat in one part of his environment, he may switch hunting grounds. This means that just because the snake is hunting in a burrow one day, the next he might be found on a tree branch devouring eggs from a nest.
When the gopher snake catches its prey above ground, it will wrap loops of its body around the victim, squeezing tighter and tighter until the prey animal suffocates. If the snake follows an animal such as a gopher into a burrow, the snake will push against the gopher or other animal, trapping it between the snake and the tunnel wall until the animal dies. Once the victim is dead, the snake will swallow it whole, after which it may not eat again for a week. Gopher snakes can also dig, allowing them to break into the burrows and consume baby animals, especially rabbits, mice and gophers.