During the summer of 1992 I acquired my first three snakes. They were Amelanistic Cornsnakes and all three were good feeders and excellent specimens, bred locally and bought direct from the breeders. Since then I have become an enthusiastic breeder myself and numbers now run somewhere in the thirties. I have most of the colour forms available and during the last 5 years have come across most of the problems owners and breeders will face.
One of the commonest is the non-feeder. Fellow breeders will know the feeling all too well, you have a nice healthy bunch of hatchlings, you eagerly await their first shed so that you can try then with their first pinkie, most of them will eat, but you get the odd one that seems disgusted by the thought of putting anything in its mouth. In fact, they will even look at the pinkie with something resembling sheer terror, if a snake is capable of expressing terror with a look, that is! I’m sure people will also have bought hatchlings that have been feeding very well with the breeder, only to go on hunger strike the moment they arrive at their new home.
There have been many different articles written on ways to tempt shy feeders and for those of you that haven’t yet got a copy I can certainly recommend the book ‘Keeping and Breeding Cornsnakes’ by Michael J. McEachern. This is an inexpensive but very educational little book and his suggestions on pages 24 - 26 should certainly work with the majority of problem feeders. For those of you that do not have the book, his main suggestions are as follows:
- Place a live pinkie in with the snake for a few hours and, if uneaten, replace with a dead one.
- Wash the pinkie - some snakes can be fooled by the different scent.
- Rub the pinkie with a small lizard or a section of shed skin, again to change the scent.
- Offer a live lizard, such as an anolis, which would probably be the main food source of wild cornsnake hatchlings.
If all else fails, tube feed using a pinkie pump or syringe with mashed pinkie, cat or baby food.
All of the above methods are described in greater detail in the book but I would not recommend the last method to anyone that has not done it before as you could end up killing the snake instead of helping it, if you do it wrong.
Another alternative is to cut sections of mouse or rat tail up and force these into the hatchling’s mouth. The snake will often start to swallow once the tail reaches the back of the throat and you can sometimes put a moistened pinkie in whilst the snake is swallowing the last section and that will be swallowed too. The main problem with all of these methods is that they are fine as short- term solutions but cannot sustain the snakes indefinitely as they do not contain enough food value to enable them to grow sufficiently. So what else can you do?
Four years ago I found myself in the position of having tried all of the above and still being stuck with a yearling cornsnake that would not eat and was not growing at all. I had hatchlings that were almost the same size! Luckily for me I had previously made the acquaintance of John Foden from Drayton Manor Zoo, as I used to go there regularly to sketch his gorgeous lions for some paintings I was working on at the time. In desperation, I rang and asked his advice. John knew that I kept birds of prey and had a regular supply of day-old chicks to feed them on, so he suggested that I tried using chick legs on the snakes. They were readily available and had a solid middle so did not explode into the disgusting mess that pinkies tend to after the snake has spat them out at you for the umpteenth time! They also contain more meat than rat tails. I decided to give it a go and you can see the results in the photograph on the preceding page. The larger snake is the same age but has fed well since birth. The photograph below shows 3 six month old hatchlings - the larger (a snow corn) feeds well but the other two are again raised on chick legs, although I am happy to report that the other snow corn has eaten fluffs twice now and, hopefully, will not require chicks again.
You will note from the photographs that the size difference between the hatchlings that feed on chick legs and the normal feeder is approximately the same as between the adult non-feeder and feeder. This would seem to indicate that the snakes will never reach normal size but can be kept healthy and alive by this method. It has also been my experience that most of the snakes started off this way will eventually go on to eat fluffs and then, gradually, small to medium mice. They will never become breeding stock but, due to the regular handling, make very good, placid-natured pets, which is all that a lot of people want. Once they have started to feed on mice they never go back to needing force feeding. The method is quite simple and is shown below. In the first photograph you see the part of the chick leg to use. First, remove the foot and break the leg off at the top of the thigh, which should leave you with a loose flap of meat and a more solid bit lower down containing the bone. As you can see in the next photograph, the leg looks large compared to the size of the snake’s head, but do not be alarmed - it was the angle I had to take the photograph at. You will also note that the snake is showing some interest in the chick leg. If they will eat voluntarily then let them or you can then try fooling them with pinkies that smell of chicks, the same way as you would with lizard skins. If not, then continue as follows. Place the meaty end in the snake’s mouth (make sure the flap of meat is wrapped over the end of the bone), gently push until you feel light resistance and at this point most snakes will unhinge their jaws and begin to swallow. If the snake does not swallow, make sure that you have the head and neck in alignment, hold the snake’s head with your thumb and forefinger and begin to gently push the leg into the snake’s throat. It should go past the edge of the jaw and in about half an inch and you can then put the snake down and it will swallow the rest. Begin by feeding one leg per week and as the snake grows increase it to two.
After a few weeks at this stage the snake should be big enough to start trying with small fluffs, which are a lot easier to handle than pinkies. The snakes are by now used to having things put into their mouths and will not struggle when faced with the fluff. After they have eaten one they tend to carry on eating by themselves if you dangle another one in front of them at their next feed.
Chick legs can be obtained from any falconry or bird of prey centre as they are a standard requirement for the birds. Most owners will not mind parting with them as they contain little food value for the birds as the main meat is in the body. They should not cost very much as a whole chick is cheaper than a pinkie when bought in bulk. During the four years that I have been using this method ‘Anna’ the Amelanistic snake shown in the first photograph is the only snake that has not gone on to eat mice. I feel the reason for that is because she had a year of various methods and did not start on chick legs until she had firmly established herself as a non-feeder. Now she's just lazy and will probably spend the rest of her days being hand fed by me.
Thanks go to the Reptillian Magazine for permission to print this article