Field and Farm

By DANNY CAIN
Posted 4/15/18

I personally can think of nothing that strikes more terror in the hearts of more people than do snakes. Most people have known me long …

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Field and Farm

Posted


I personally can think of nothing that strikes more terror in the hearts of more people than do snakes. Most people have known me long enough to know that I am very fond of the outdoors and of wildlife, and yes I have to admit that includes snakes as well. The only frame of reference that I have to understand people’s irrational fear of snakes would be if somebody sneaked up behind me and yelled “Computer.” I’ll take a snake any day over a computer. There are approximately 40 species of snakes  in Alabama, and I like all of them better than any computer that I have ever used.


In all seriousness, snakes are one of my favorite forms of wildlife if for no other reason because there is no other animal that I can think of that has been so feared and so misunderstood. As I mentioned earlier, there approximately 40 species in Alabama, of which only six are venomous and of these only four are found in our part of the state. ALL the other species are non-venomous and are extremely beneficial.


Most of our larger snakes feed on rodents, fish, frogs, lizards, and even other snakes. Scarlet kingsnakes are harmless but often mistaken for coral snakes are known for making meals out of venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes. Gray rat snakes (also called chicken snakes) and corn snakes are frequently misidentified as copperheads and are needlessly killed. Many smaller snakes feed on insects, earthworms, and smaller rodents. Since the majority of snakes are non-venomous and pose no threat whatsoever to people, their natural feeding pattern makes them very valuable to have around especially if you are like me and cannot stand rats.


Even non-venomous snakes have the ability to bite. Rat snakes do tend to be aggressive (although their bite is non-venomous). They can be about as cantankerous as I am when I skip my morning coffee. Biting is one of the snakes defense mechanisms. If it is attacked, the snake has no legs to run away, has no arms to fight back, has no protective armor, and it doesn’t even have fingers to go call 911 in case of emergency. All it has is a mouth…. What would you do if all you had was a mouth and somebody was whacking you on the head with a hoe handle?


Like other reptiles, snakes are cold blooded. They regulate their body temperature by changing their exposure to the sun. On days when it is very hot, snakes can be found in shady areas or dens, when it is cooler snakes can be found in sunny areas along exposed tree branches, rocks, or other debris.


I have often heard comments such as "the only good snake is a dead snake." This to me is absolutely horrible thinking given the fact that snakes are beneficial animals. When encountered in nature or in your back yard for that matter the best plan is to simply back away and each of you go your own separate way. More people end up being bitten by trying to kill, capture, or chase the snake away than any other way. I can’t think of a single case where a snake of any kind woke up one morning and just decided to go “people hunting” instead of rat hunting.


One thing I would certainly plan to do is to learn to identify venomous snakes. Remember, there are only six. You should also teach your children to identify them. Three are very easy…. They rattle!


Timber (canebrake) rattlesnakes are very large and heavy bodied and may attain a length of up to seven feet. It has distinctive black markings and a triangular head with small pits beneath the eyes. Pigmy rattlesnakes hardly ever reach more than thirty inches in length. This is one to stay away from, as they tend to be more than a little bit aggressive.


Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes can grow extremely large, in excess of eight feet at times. They are fairly common in the gulf coast region of south Alabama but very rare north of Montgomery.


Copperheads, arguably, are the most common of the venomous snakes found in Walker County. They are very variable in color ranging from tan to dark brown. This is certainly a snake worth learning to identify. They have very distinctive stripes or bands that are narrow at the top and broader at the bottom. If you peeled the bands off the snake they would look like an hourglass. They can commonly be found along rock piles and underneath piles of lumber, brush, or wood just about anyplace with a good supply of rodents.


Cottonmouths or (water moccasin) is a large heavy-bodied aquatic snake. Its color ranges from dull tan/brown as a juvenile to dull black as an adult. Its major identifier is the white color inside its mouth from which it gets its name. Cottonmouths do not scare easily so this is one species you definitely want to avoid confronting. There are also many other harmless snakes that live in the water. The banded water snake is one of these, and many are killed each year after being confused for water moccasins.


Finally the coral snake native to the lower coastal plains. This multi-colored (red, yellow and black) banded snake is a distant relative of the cobra with very similar neurotoxin. Just remember “red touching yellow, kill a fellow; red touching black, friend of Jack” to tell the difference between venomous coral snakes and harmless scarlet king snakes. You can take heart also in knowing that we do not have coral snakes in Walker County. You may also want to check our website at www.aces.edu to download our free publication “Identification and Control of Snakes in Alabama.”


Snakes do appear in strange places as they crawl around looking for food, water, and shelter. I found one (a harmless green snake) inside my hiking boot one time. I also turned up three equally harmless ringneck snakes one time in my compost pile.


I do get an occasional call about snakes that have found their way underneath someone’s house. While nothing will guarantee that you will never meet up with a snake, there are some things that can be done to reduce the chances of a snake showing up. Heavy brush, rock piles, and trash piles provide shelter and attract rodents so they make ideal places for snakes to be. Even compost piles and heavy mulching around plants can make good snake habitat. Eliminating such structures from your property can help reduce snake populations. A well-maintained lawn that is cut low is also very unattractive to snakes. Certainly you should eliminate areas of tall grass and weeds. Snakes are also less likely to be found when large dogs are present, but certainly this is no guarantee.


Many people wish a magical powder could be sprinkled around to keep snakes away. While several chemicals have been tested, their effectiveness varies greatly. If you use a chemical snake repellent, you should still be cautious, because the product may or may not be entirely effective.


There are a few products I get asked about from time to time as to their ability to chase away unwanted snakes. Agricultural lime, for example, is great for adjusting the pH of your lawn or garden soil so that your plants grow better, but it does little (actually nothing) for preventing snakes. Hydrated lime, a very caustic compound used to make rapid adjustments to soil pH, can discourage unwanted animals; however, it is extremely caustic and potentially damaging to plants and can also cause serious skin irritation to people and pets. Moth balls could potentially work if you used them at very high concentrations in a very small area. For example if you placed a shoebox full of mothballs in your front lawn, you probably would not find a snake in the shoebox. Such application is not really practical for treating entire yards.


While people occasionally get bitten it is very rare that someone dies from snakebite. On average about one person dies from snakebites in Alabama every TEN years. More people die each year from bee stings (about 100 nationally), insect bites, lightening strikes (about 70 people nationally), dog attacks, and just about any other way that you can die. I’m not sure how many snakes die at the hands of Alabamians, but I’ll bet it’s more than one every ten years. Teach your children the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes and also teach them that no snake should be handled or caught. This is also good advice for all you potential snake handlers out there. I once got bitten by a nonpoisonous snake….trying to catch it of course. If you encounter a snake in the wild (venomous or not) you go your way and let the snake go his way. You’ll both be much happier and you will have far less rats and other rodents to deal with.