Simply Misunderstood

Posted 4/7/19

I personally can think of nothing that strikes more terror in the hearts of more people than snakes do. Most people have known me long enough to know that I am very fond of the outdoors and of …

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Simply Misunderstood

Posted

I personally can think of nothing that strikes more terror in the hearts of more people than snakes do. Most people have known me long enough to know that I am very fond of the outdoors and of wildlife, 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 some body sneaked up behind me and yelled “Computer”.  Most of you also know that I hate computers almost as much as I like wildlife and snakes. There are approximately 40 species of snakes that occur fairly commonly in Alabama.

In all actuality, 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. Many of them feed on rats, mice, and other rodents…..and just to make one thing very clear I HATE RATS AND MICE! Several of them also feed on venomous snakes and help us to control populations of copperheads and other venomous snakes….they also feed on spiders just for good measure.

Most of our larger snakes feed on rodents, fish, frogs, lizards, and even other snakes.  Kingsnakes (and there are several species of them) are harmless but often mistaken for venomous snakes are known for making meals out of venomous snakes such as copperheads. Gray rat snakes, also called chicken 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, remember 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 very cold 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 (and in fact just makes me cringe) 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 over 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 seven feet at times. They are fairly common in the gulf coast region of south Alabama but are not found in our area. 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. They are arguably the least venomous of all of our poisonous snakes. 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 moccasins) are a large heavy-bodied aquatic snake (most of our other water snakes are long thinner bodied snakes). 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 relative of the cobra. 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. We do not have coral snakes in Walker County. You may also want to check our website for our publication ANR 597 Identification and Control of Snakes in Alabama which has great color pictures of our venomous snakes and other great information and can be downloaded free of charge. Here is the link to that publication https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/forestry-wildlife/identification-and-control-of-snakes-in-alabama/. I highly recommend it!

Snakes do appear in strange places as they crawl around looking for food, water, and shelter.  I found three (harmless ringneck snakes) once while I was turning my compost pile.

I do get an occasional call about snakes that have found their way underneath someone’s house or into garages etc. 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.

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, insect bites, lightening strikes, dog attacks, and just about any other way that you can die. I even read one time that more people die as a result of injuries sustained from vending machines than snakes. I’m not sure how many snakes die at the hands of Alabamians, but I’ll bet its 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. 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.