in our backyard Environment

Delhi’s city snakes

A Checkered Keelback on the water control gate in Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur

A Checkered Keelback on the water control gate in Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur   | Photo Credit: Abhishek Gulshan

You may just find the Checkered Keelback basking in the sun in the park, but there’s no reason to fear this non-venomous reptile

The one time I rescued the Checkered Keelback from a backyard in Vasant Kunj, it bit me 20 times, a mixture or nervousness and aggression. Being non-venomous though I was mostly unharmed, barring the many tiny punctures in my arms. As it moved, sidewinding rapidly to escape, flattening its head to resemble a hood of sorts, it looked almost like the venomous cobra. Indeed, it does this to keep off predators. It’s not a confrontational animal though, and would rather avoid any kind of conflict with humans or other bigger animals through camouflage.

You can see them commonly during the rains or post monsoon, as the weather offers a veritable smorgasbord of delicious food. Younger snakes typically feed on frog eggs, tadpoles, and water insects.

Older snakes eat fish, frogs, and occasionally rodents and birds, and at times snakes as well, especially in the urban ecosystem. It stalks its prey and grasps it with its jaws, attempting to swallow it at the earliest. Xenochrophis piscator, the scientific name of the Checkered Keelback, stems from the Greek words, xenos,meaning strange, ochros meaning pale yellow, and ophis meaning snake. Piscatoris latin for angler, alluding to its fish-eating habits, especially around freshwater bodies and paddy fields, where they’re often found, outside the urban context.

The body of the snake is stout and the scales on the upper-body make them rough to touch. The underside is glossy white or yellowish-white, while the back shows extensive colour variations: glossy olive-green, olive-brown, yellow, brown, grey or black with a checkered body pattern like a chess board, hence its name. The snake has a round pupil and two bold black streaks, one below the eye and the other from the eye to the mouth. These snakes are medium-sized with an adult usually growing up to 60 cm in length with the hatchlings usually between 12.5 to 25 cm.

In cities, the snake is found in sewage lines, and occasionally in and around parks with access to water pipes and rat tunnels. Sometimes, they can also pay a ‘friendly’ visit to households, travelling through sewage and water pipelines at any time of the day or night, since they are diurnal.

Checkered Keelbacks are oviparous (egg-producing), and are prolific breeders. They may lay up to 90 eggs between December and March in rat tunnels, holes in wells and near sewage lines. The females stay with the eggs until they hatch in about 60-70 days. During the mating season, both males and females are likely to be found together.

Since snakes are cold-blooded animals (reptiles), they are less active in winter. Unlike mammals, snakes do not go into full hibernation, but do enter a state of dormancy,, slowing their metabolism. This means they still need food and water, but in lower quantities. It is not unusual to see them bask in the sun on a gloriously sunny winter morning.

If you do encounter a snake, do call the Wildlife SOS helpline (9871963535), the forest department or the police for assistance without confronting the snake.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 12:10:01 PM |

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