Snakes: The Venomous Ones

It is said that humans may have instinctive fears of some things in nature. Spiders have been included in this group of common phobias, and snakes are another major group. This may well be a fear implanted in the minds of many animals, given the number of bugs around the world which have some amount of snake mimicry associated with them. There are caterpillars that can expand their hind end to look identical to the head of a snake, butterflies with patterns on their wings strongly reminiscent of the patterns of a snake, and many large insects will “hiss” when disturbed, such as large June Beetles or Long-horned Beetles. In my own home I am familiar with this deep phobia, for my wife is terribly afraid of snakes, and no amount of education on the benefits of them will ever overcome her fear. My daughter and I readily pick up and handle those snakes we know to be harmless, but for my wife……. Well, that will never happen.

The fact is that the majority of the species of snakes in North America are non-venomous, and most of the small kinds that inhabit our gardens are, for the most part, harmless to us and our pets. Of the 120 or so species in the U.S. only 19 are considered dangerous to people. They are all predators, feeding on a wide variety of other kinds of animals found in our landscape, and usually those kinds that we’d prefer not to have around. The larger snakes go after rodents, and the gopher snake, for example, is given this name for its ability to slide down into a gopher’s tunnels and seek out this food resource. The larger snakes also feed on frogs, toads, lizards, or other snakes, which is unfortunate when it comes to preserving these other beneficial animals around us, but nature knows best how to keep things in check. Small species of snakes feed on insects and other non-vertebrates, obviously serving a huge benefit to us in maintaining pest-free gardens. One pretty snake I find regularly in my own yard, and often in my swimming pool, from which I rescue it and return it to the garden, is called the Sharp Tailed Snake, a very small species with pinkish-gray coloring. It feeds quite often on garden slugs, and for this I thank the snake.

It is our tendency to want to kill all snakes, possibly because we may not know how to identify a snake species, and better safe than sorry. Despite my love of snakes, if I found a rattlesnake in my yard I would have to eliminate it in some manner. I understand the benefits of the feeding habits even of rattlesnakes, but cannot tolerate the presence of this venomous and dangerous kind living that close to me. Fortunately, in my area of Northern California the only truly dangerous snakes are rattlesnakes, and these are easily distinguished by the presence of those “rattles” on their tail end. In many areas of the southern states there is a greater variety of snakes, including venomous kinds such as coral snakes, water moccasins, and copperheads, and these may be more difficult to identify at a glance. It is very important for you to learn the distinguishing characters and markings of those kinds you may find in your area, and teach this to your children as soon as they will learn. The first time I encountered a rattlesnake while walking with my daughter I took a stick and poked at the snake, eliciting that buzzing sound from the rattles. I wanted my daughter to know what that sound was, and to learn just a little more about the snake.

Many of the larger snakes, while not venomous, still can bite. They use their fangs for gripping their prey long enough to be able to kill it, so they may then take the time needed to swallow that prey as one large, slow gulp. Snakes cannot chew or break off pieces, so they must work the entire animal into their mouths and down their esophagus, and this does not work if the food is kicking and squirming. The gopher snake is a good example of a non-venomous snake, but one that easily confuses us. It has colors and patterns on its back that may be very similar to those of rattlesnakes, and when it is agitated it often rapidly vibrates its tail end, causing a sound similar to that from a rattlesnake if that tail is vibrating in dry leaves or brush. However, many of the venomous snakes have widened, somewhat triangular heads, and the non-venomous kinds have a more slender head.

There also can be confusion in other species. For example, coral snakes are venomous, and occur most commonly in the southeast states to Texas, along with one rare species that occurs in the southwest states into California. The red, yellow, and black bands would be very distinctive for these snakes if it were not for a look-alike, the Mountain King Snake that is found in the western states. Both coral snakes and this king snake (which is non-venomous) have the red, yellow, and black banding, but the sequence of the colors is the key, and a little poem may help you remember this – “red and yellow will kill a fellow”. This means that if the red and the yellow bands are touching each other it is a coral snake, and should be avoided.

The non-venomous snakes, lacking that defense of a toxin, must find these other ways to defend themselves against their own predators, and for the Mountain King Snake it may help to look like a venomous kind. For the gopher snake the look and behavior of a rattlesnake may cause a potential predator to back off. Another fraud is the Hognose Snake, with several different species found throughout much of the United States. It actually is a venomous snake, but is referred to a one of the “rear-fanged” vipers, where the fangs are located so far back in the mouth that it is incapable of biting humans and injecting venom. It is adapted for the small lizards and salamanders that it does feed on. However, again, the color and patterns are very similar to those of a rattlesnake, and when threatened this snake puts on quite a show. The no-less-than 21 different names given to this snake help identify its behavior, as it puffs itself up, expands its neck area to resemble a cobra, and hisses loudly, giving rise to names like Puff Adder, Blowing Viper, or Spreading Adder. If all of these bluffs fail to frighten away the threat, the Hognose snake then falls over and plays dead, hoping its enemy will only feed on fresh foods.

Snakes have little reason to go after humans or our pets, since we do not live where the huge constrictors such as pythons occur, snakes that may very well feed on small mammals. Snakes will bite us only if they are pushed into a corner or feel like they face an immediate danger from us. Their venom is a precious commodity, and they will use it only when absolutely necessary. I was taught, as a child, to pick up logs or pieces of wood by grabbing the opposite side and rolling it toward me. This way, if a snake were hiding under that wood it could not strike directly at my hands or feet. If you step over a log look first to see what may be lying on the other side of it, for snakes may be right there, and stepping on the snake will elicit a self defense response from it. Certainly, never pick up a venomous snake unless you are trained in doing so, and keeping venomous snakes as “pets” in the home is not a wise hobby.

The intent of this article on the Non-venomous Snakes is the hope that you will gain some tolerance of these fascinating animals, and recognize the benefit of having them in the yard and surrounding landscapes. There is no reason to kill a non-venomous snake, and doing so may actually be to the detriment of your garden, for now the animals that feed on your plants will have an easier time doing so. If you still wish to limit the presence of snakes there are a number of steps you can take to make your property less inviting to them. The main emphasis should be on preventing snakes from entering your home, and taking a close look around the exterior of the structure may reveal many openings that would allow the snake to enter. These usually will be gaps under doors or broken vents leading to the crawlspace, and these can be permanently closed by repair and the installation of strips at the bottoms of the doors. These kinds of repairs will also serve you well by keeping out a great many other unwanted animals.

Most snakes are nocturnal, active at night and hiding during the daytime, and if you can eliminate hiding places you will dramatically reduce the presence of the snakes near your home. In any natural setting the snakes may hide under objects, such as large stones, logs, piles of lumber or firewood, or piles of yard debris. These can be eliminated or properly stacked off the soil. Snakes may go down into holes in the ground, such as old rodent burrows, and these can be located and filled with dirt. Snakes may be discouraged if you keep surrounding areas mowed short, keep shrubbery trimmed up off the soil, and reduce the amount of groundcover plantings on your property. Anything stored outside in boxes or other containers should be stored off the soil, leaving a gap of a foot or more between the stored items and the soil. Eliminating food resources on your property, such as rodents, can also help. However, a snake can live for many weeks without feeding, so the results of food deprivation may be slow.

Snakes really should not be killed for no reason. This is contrary to good environmental stewardship on our part, and snakes are having a hard enough time as it is with habitat loss and urbanization. There are around a dozen species of snakes in the U.S. currently listed as Endangered Species, with many others found only rarely in nature. It is important for you to learn to recognize the kinds that may live in your area, and take care to preserve them when possible. If, however, you are faced with a need to have snakes removed from your yard, consider contracting with a licensed wildlife management professional for the work. This is especially true if the snakes are venomous, for the venom from a snake bite can cause extremely serious problems for your health, including the potential for death.

There are no poisons registered for the control of snakes. Repellents exist, but the effectiveness of these likely will vary widely. Granular snake repellents rely on the odors of naphthalene and sulfur, and used outdoors may not create a concentration high enough to affect a snake. Used indoors their odors may become an irritant to the occupants of the home. Don’t fall victim to advertising for the various ultrasonic repelling devices that promise to chase snakes and other vermin away. Extensive testing by universities continues to conclude that these devices do little to alter the behavior of any animal.

The best advice is to change the habitat in your yard so that dangerous snakes do not feel welcome, and to accept and enjoy the kinds that do us no harm.