Knowing Poisonous Snakes

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Copperheads blend in well in the fall leaves.
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The cottonmouth family is also known as the water moccasin.
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A copperhead finds shelter among old pots and leaves.
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The western diamondback is a member of the rattlesnake family.
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The coral snake family is among the most poisonous of snakes in the United States.
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Leave the snake charming to Gritty – it's dangerous.
Snakebite Treatment
Okefenokee Joe the Snake Educator

Early in the summer as I flip-flopped down the wooden steps in our backyard, I was surprised by a sudden, slithering movement beside my foot. Fueled by adrenaline, I leapt 10 feet high, spun midair with the skill of an Olympic ski jumper, and landed several feet away. I instantly ran through a mental checklist: large triangular head; thick, heavy body; brown and tan hourglass pattern; vertical pupils. “COPPERHEAD!” my mind screamed, and I watched in horror as the snake disappeared down a hole in my flowerbed.

We live in a wooded area, and we had seen lots of wildlife, including several nonpoisonous rat snakes, king snakes and black racers. We didn’t mind them. In fact, we found them interesting. But seeing the copperhead so close to our house left us a bit unsettled.

Fifty-one percent of us confess some anxiety towards snakes. Twenty percent of us describe ourselves as downright terrified of snakes, yet a human is more likely to be killed in a car accident or by a lightning strike than from a snakebite. Unfortunately, fears and misunderstandings cause many people to kill every snake that they encounter. In my lifetime, I’ve heard many people remark, “The only good snake is a dead snake,” a comment that makes me cringe. We should never kill indiscriminately or take a snake’s role in nature for granted. 

Snakes have a job to do

“Every living thing in the natural world has a job to do – every plant, animal and insect on God’s green earth is working together as a team,” says naturalist and renowned herpetologist Okefenokee Joe. “Our existence on this planet depends upon the existence of all life around us, and that includes snakes, too.”

Joe, once known as singer/songwriter Dick Flood, has devoted his life to spreading a message of appreciation and respect for our wildlife, environment and natural resources. He travels the Southeast with a slithering truckload of snakes in tow, thrilling crowds with his Earth Day Every Day educational show. The snakes, his goodwill ambassadors if you will, certainly capture everyone’s attention and get hearts pumping.

“Snakes play a critical role in nature’s food chain – they eat rodents, insects and other reptiles. A snake can eat more than his weight in mice and rats each month,” Joe says. “Left unchecked, rodents can destroy crops and cause costly damage to homes, so snakes are beneficial to have around your farm or yard. Some nonpoisonous snakes, such as king snakes, eat venomous species, too.”

And Joe emphasizes that snakes serve as a food source for larger predators such as eagles, hawks, owls, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and other wildlife. 

Know your snakes

Is there an easy way to tell the difference between poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes? Okefenokee Joe recommends buying a small field guide and familiarizing yourself with the snakes common to your area – especially the venomous ones.

“It’s important to realize that most snakes are not dangerous. There are only four poisonous varieties in the United States, so it is easiest to remember what those snakes look like and where you are likely to see them,” he says. They are:

  • Copperhead Family (a.k.a. Highland Moccasin) – a brown, copper or tan pit viper with darker brown, hourglass patterns on its back. There are five known species in the United States, and all are similar in appearance.
  • Cottonmouth Family (a.k.a. Water Moccasin) – a heavy bodied, dark gray or brown pit viper with darker bands (sometimes appears as almost solid gray or black). Cottonmouths prefer to live near water. There are three known species in the United States, and all are similar in appearance.
  • Rattlesnake Family – a pit viper with rattles (buttons) on the tip of his tail. There are approximately 31 known species residing in the United States.
  • Coral Snake Family – striking colors of red, black and yellow with a yellow band separating every color. Coral snakes have black noses. There are three known species in the United States, and all are similar in appearance.

If you do encounter a poisonous snake, stay away from it.

“Snakes are scared of humans and will retreat to safety if given the opportunity, so let them,” Joe says. “Just move away slowly without making any sudden movements and give the snake plenty of room to escape. Dozens of people are bitten each year as a result of foolishly trying to kill, tease, catch or get a closer look at a venomous snake. If you need a poisonous snake removed from your yard, call a trained wildlife professional.” 

Shoo, snake, shoo!

If you don’t want to cohabitate with snakes, Joe says anyone can do some simple things to ward off reptiles and make yards less appealing to them. Snakes frequent areas where their food of choice is abundant, so concentrate on eliminating or reducing their favorite menu items – mice and rats. You might try:

  • Getting a cat or two.
  • Keeping a flock of free-ranging guinea fowl.
  • Moving bird feeders and baths farther from your house.
  • Storing bird seed and pet food indoors in sealed containers.
  • Removing sources of water on the outside of your house.
  • Sealing garbage cans tightly.
  • Harvesting fruits and vegetables in your garden frequently.
  • Using mouse traps.

“Don’t allow piles to accumulate in your yard,” Joe says. “And eliminate spaces where snakes hide around your property.” Consider the following:

  • Moving your wood pile, compost heap and garden farther from your house.
  • Eliminating stacks of lumber, piles of leaves, mounds of bricks, rocks, tin and other debris from your yard.
  • Keeping your grass mowed.
  • Collapsing and filling-in tunnels and holes where animals have burrowed.
  • Pruning lower limbs of shrubs to expose the base of the plant and keep branches off of the ground.
  • Eliminating weeds and other ground cover growing near your foundation, fence lines and play areas.
  • Sealing cracks and holes around pipes, wire, windows, vents and doors. 

Think like a snake

Of course, your best defense against being bitten by a snake is learning more about its habits and modifying your behavior.

“Humans often surprise reptiles,” Joe says. “Snakes are not likely to sense our approach, so always watch out for them and teach your children to watch out for them, too.”

Snakes warm and cool their bodies around patios, carports, garages, concrete slabs, rocks, gardens, crawl spaces, sheds and utility buildings, so be more cautious around these areas. Keep your hands and feet out of areas that you can’t see, walk on clearly defined paths and trails, and step on logs or rocks – not over them. And walk with heavy steps so that snakes will feel the vibration and move out of your way.

When gardening, working or hiking in thick vegetation areas where visibility is limited or poisonous snakes have been seen, wear appropriate clothing. Since most snake bites occur below the knee, wear boots and long, coarse pants for additional protection. Wear gloves and long sleeves if you are working in flowerbeds or gardens.

Indeed, there are ways that we can safely coexist and cooperate with all creatures, including snakes, but we must first overcome our fear and learn to respect them for the job they do. The next time you cross paths with a snake, exercise caution and consider Okefenokee Joe’s Golden Rule, ‘If you don’t need it, leave it.’ A yard full of wildlife is a yard full of beauty, wonder and natural balance.

Freelance writer Amber Lanier Nagle lives in Northwest Georgia with her husband, three big dogs, several deer, wild gobblers, a few lonely coyotes, and more snakes than she can shake a stick at.