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Jessen shares his love, knowledge of snakes at Harkin Store

Six types of snakes, all harmless, found in river valley

September 24, 2012
By Fritz Busch - Staff Writer ( , The Journal

WEST NEWTON TOWNSHIP - A Madelia man who specializes in biological surveys displayed several snakes in glass enclosures Sunday at the Historic Harkin Store.

Tom Jessen said six types of harmless snakes are common to the Minnesota River Valley - Garter, Fox, Milk, Blue Races, Brown and Redbelly snakes. He said Bull and Green snakes were found in this area in the distant past but not lately.

Jessen said he occasionally finds fox and garter snakes in the rugged terrain of the Minnesota River Valley and its nearby creeks and rivers.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Fritz Busch
Tom Jessen of Madelia holds a harmless fox snake at the Historic Harkin Store Sunday.

"Exposed limestone and other exposed rock formations and holes in the ground can provide easy access to underground winter snake hibernation dens. They're migrating upland from the river this time of year to dryer places," Jessen said. "More snakes once roamed the prairies and grasslands before intense farming practices and other land development took place."

Jessen picked up a fox snake that slid in and out of his hands.

"He isn't as cool as he was earlier in the day," Jessen added.

He said there is historical evidence (Mankato newspaper accounts from the 1800s) of people who were bitten by area rattlesnakes and seen by doctors who applied whiskey and a bandage to victims.

"There are no poisonous snakes around here now, but Timber Rattlers may have been around year long ago," Jessen wrote on his website "No Rattlesnakes have ever been officially documented around here. I encountered and photographed one in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota in 1998."

Jessen said Fox snakes are routinely killed, perhaps because they are mistaken for Rattlesnakes.

"It doesn't help that Fox snakes vibrate their tails in dry leaves when disturbed, a sound that can be truly frightening," Jessen added. "It's simply a defensive maneuver to let large animals like deer and blundering humans know there is something napping in the grass."

Jessen said Bull, Milk and young Blue Racer snakes all have heavily blotched patterns and vibrate their tails.

He said it's not uncommon for two male snakes to meet, look closely at each other and fight if one of them doesn't back down. The battle continues, with snakes spinning around like two ropes in a tornado. They may bite each other and continue to fight until one of the snakes pins the other's head to the ground.

Jessen routinely catches snakes, measurers, photographs and releases them. Many of the snakes stay in the immediate area and are re-captured several times.

He said snakes commonly found in this area often eat field and deer mice and small birds on occasion.

"Larger Fox snakes should be a welcome sight in barns because they often eat small rats," Jessen said.

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at



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