Windsor animal crossing leads to improvements in endangered snake populations

·3 min read
Fox snakes making a comeback as Windsor's animal crossing helps them get to safety. (Michael Evans/CBC - image credit)
Fox snakes making a comeback as Windsor's animal crossing helps them get to safety. (Michael Evans/CBC - image credit)

An animal crossing built across one of Ontario's busiest highways has helped keep the region's population of endangered snakes, like the Fox snake, safe.

The crossing was built over Highway 401, which was causing serious problems for various animal species in the area, field biologist Russ Jones said.

"The traffic never slowed down, even at night," Jones said. "So even nocturnal animals couldn't get a break. And it was, by all accounts, impermeable to any any snake that ever tried to cross here."

"It was an impenetrable barrier made worse by the fact that there was really suitable habitat on both sides of the road," he said. "So you're getting it from both sides. And it was certainly a major cause of decline in this particular population of all wildlife, but especially the small terrestrial species such as snakes and amphibians and small mammals and things like that."

Fox snakes, in particular, were "barely holding on," Jones said. The snakes, which can grow to five feet in length, are unique to the Great Lakes region.

"They don't have a very large global range, and they're not really abundant anywhere in their range," Jones said. "So it is a species that is is just apt to decline through things like fragmentation and habitat loss."

Fox snakes 'entirely harmless'

The crossing, which connects Spring Garden Natural Area and Oakwood Prairie, has made a difference, Jones said.

"We've been able to confirm that some of our endangered snakes have used it through radio telemetry and mark and recapture studies," he said. "But the benefits go far beyond the endangered snakes."

"There's a whole host of animals that use this crossing, from deer to coyotes," Jones said. "I've seen birds nesting up here. There's pollinators because it's been planted with wildflowers."

Michael Evans/CBC
Michael Evans/CBC

Jones called the project "incredibly satisfying," and noted it has a special significance to him, personally, due to its location.

"My childhood home was demolished because it was isolated through the course of this project," he said. "It was inaccessible. So the entire row of houses needed to be taken out."

"The home that I grew up in as a child was actually turned into a hibernation spot for snakes," Jones said. "So, what a legacy to leave behind. It thrilling to me to watch my old neighborhood be converted into optimum habitat for endangered wildlife."

Tough to spot

Jones encouraged people who come across fox snakes in the area to enjoy the moment, and take some photos.

"It's an entirely harmless snake and it's a beneficial species," he said. "You're just very lucky to see one."

Fox snakes were proving elusive to two people who were using the area this week.

"From running around here and talking to some of the locals whenever we're training, apparently there is a nest somewhere," she said. "A big nest."

"Lots of people have seen snakes, Ditto said. "Luckily I've never seen one, hope not to."

Sanjay Maru/CBC
Sanjay Maru/CBC

Michelle Nesbitt hasn't seen any fox snakes either, but said word of their resurgence doesn't surprise her.

"There's lots of snakes in this area," Daralan Ditto said. "The most wildlife I've seen are the deer."

"My friends and I have walked this trail, and we watched 20 deer cross over one of the bridges," Nesbitt said. "We have seen lots of other wildlife, but not a ton of snakes."

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