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Article: Snakes in the Garden- the Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Great article, some suggestions...

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Forum: Article: Snakes in the Garden- the Good, the Bad and the UglyReplies: 7, Views: 78
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Novato, CA
(Zone 10a)

May 24, 2011
9:24 AM

Post #8584296

First off, I just wanted to thank you for this insightful article! It's breeding season right now for most species of snakes, so people are going to be encountering them more frequently as they are wandering around searching for a mate. These beautiful animals are so misunderstood, and it's a shame so many people are afraid of them or try to harm them. Hopefully your article will change a few minds, though I guess that's a pretty tall order since a hatred of snakes is so deeply-engrained in our culture. I am an experienced herper - someone who goes looking for snakes, lizards, frogs, etc. for the purpose of photographing them - and I always try to take the time to talk to other individuals in the field who are curious about the animals I've found. You'd be surprised how many people have claimed to be petrified of snakes, but then end up holding the four-foot gophersnake I'm photographing just five minutes later! It's a great feeling, if you change one person's opinion of snakes, they are probably going to tell their friends and family what they learned and change more minds. Education is the key!

Onto the article, one of the things I noticed is that you referred to vipers and coral snakes as poisonous; while this is a term commonly used to describe these animals, it is technically incorrect. The more proper term is "venomous", because they have to inject their toxins directly into the bloodstream in order for it to have any effect. The word "poisonous", on the other hand, refers to organisms that are able to cause harm by being eaten or even just touched (mushrooms, lilies, and dart frogs are poisonous). Very few snakes are actually poisonous, the only one in the United States I can think of is the ubiquitous ringneck snake, whose aposematic coloration warns other species that they are distasteful - it is not uncommon to find ringnecks sharing shelter together with much larger predatory species, such as alligator lizards or gophersnakes, because the latter species know to avoid eating the ringneck snake. In fact, because this species has a mild venom that affects only its small prey, it has the distinction of being the only snake in the United States that is both venomous and poisonous.

As for how to distinguish cottonmouths from harmless watersnakes, there's a useful characteristic to look for that you can use to tell these two snakes apart even from a distance - it has to do with the way they swim. Cottonmouths are extremely buoyant snakes, and they swim with most of their bodies right on the surface of the water, with their head elevated up in the air. It looks like they are floating, but they can dive under the surface quickly if they feel harassed. Here is a photograph of a cottonmouth swimming:

In contrast, the inoffensive watersnakes swim in a more inconspicuous manner. While in the water, they generally swim with the majority of their bodies under the surface, often with just their eyes and nose poking out of the water. Here is a shot of a watersnake swimming for contrast:

Remembering these differences will help individuals distinguish between cottonmouths and watersnakes from quite some distance, which is useful if the snakes cannot be approached close enough to see their eyes or body pattern.

Thank you for advising people not to kill snakes in their yard! Government figures state that half of all venomous snakebites occur when people were intentionally harassing or trying to kill the snake... And of course, you have to take into account that a large portion of the other half simply lied and said the snake "attacked" them, so it is more likely that the majority of significant snakebites occur when people refuse to leave the animal alone and instead try to harm it. If you find a venomous snake hanging out in your yard, by far the wisest decision is to call animal control or the fire department and have them come relocate the snake - that way everyone is happy and no one gets hurt, including the snake, who is a valuable predator of disease-causing rodents. Snakes are highly beneficial to have around the yard; not only do they feed on rodents, but there are also species that specialize in feeding on other snakes and reptiles, slugs, snails, and even insects! They are a great form of natural pest control, and have the benefit of being more interesting to watch than snail bait.

One last, minor thing... The first photo of the "racer" is actually a Black Ratsnake. You can tell this by its large, coffin-shaped head rather than a small pointy one like the Coachwhip on the immediate right. Racers also rarely climb trees, much preferring to pursue their prey on ground.

Thanks again for the article.


Acton, CA
(Zone 8b)

May 24, 2011
11:19 AM

Post #8584516

maybe I got that photo from the wrong website. I had never seen a racer in a tree, either, so that may mean the black rat snake photo was of a racer (got the two mixed up perhaps). I have not caught that many racers in my years of herping, though did get a group of red racers early one morning from under a rock where there were spending the night.. and they were so cold they barely moved. But by midday, lookout! They are extremely unhappy about being caught... I just let them go at that point, seeing there were not going to make good aquarium pets.

Good to know about Water Moccasins... only ones I have seen in person were curled up on stumps near a river in Louisiana. There were quite a few of them, though.
Greensboro, AL

May 24, 2011
6:41 PM

Post #8585303

". . . a snake sheds his skin when he grows.
He leaves it behind like an old set of clothes."

On a sultry Southern afternoon, its always worth a smile to notice a Southern Black Snake stretched out on a limb. They especially like the horizontal limbs of the Southern Magnolias in my yard.

Thanks for such an informative article, Palmbob!

This message was edited May 24, 2011 7:46 PM
Alachua, FL
(Zone 8b)

May 30, 2011
4:46 AM

Post #8596119

Black racers are the most-commonly-seen snake at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville FL. Many times I have seen them eating or hunting lizards, and it is not uncommon to find them in the branches of a crape myrtle, again hunting lizards.

Visitors routinely mistake the frequently-seen banded or Florida watersnake (often sitting on the bank of a pond) for a moccasin. We point out the dark lines running from side to side underneath the mouth and the lack of a dark line running through the eye, both of which help to distinguish it from a moccasin.
Silex, MO

May 30, 2011
1:37 PM

Post #8597354

Gee, I never knew my little ringnecks were poisonus and venomous. I usually go around the yard before mowing and pick them up and carry them to a safe place. They have never tried to bit me. I even hold them in my hand and stroke their backs. I even save copperheads when I can. Found a couple under a rock one chilly and they were not moving too fast so I caught them just behind their heads and carried them to the other side of the road wherethey would be safe in the woods. I know, I am a nut! I even talk to my mountain lion when he comes to our area.
Austin, TX

May 30, 2011
2:10 PM

Post #8597407

Good article. I love snakes but have killed 3 rattlesnakes in the past when they got into my camping grounds(Northern CA, though I live in TX now). I feel bad about it now, but at the time didn't want them coming back to bite me when i may be sleeping. The first was a western diamond back, which was a camping trip in the south, the other two were the green type which I was later told aren't aggressive at all. That was around Lake Anderson near Morgan Hill CA. I felt like an ass after hearing that. Yeah, they were trying to just get away when i look back at it.
Novato, CA
(Zone 10a)

May 31, 2011
11:47 AM

Post #8599473

dordee - No need to fear ringnecks at all, they are 100% harmless to humans. Many years ago, it was assumed that the only venomous snakes in the United States were vipers and coralsnakes, but recent research has shown that many common Colubrid species do have small fangs in the back of their mouth and mild venom for incapacitating their small reptilian or amphibian prey (the venom is harmless to mammals). Species that are technically venomous besides the ringneck include the hognose snakes, lyresnakes, and nightsnakes, and even the ubiquitous gartersnake's saliva has mildly toxic effects on prey (anticoagulants and whatnot). Venomous does not automatically translate into dangerous though, and all of these species are completely harmless to humans and pets.

muck4doo - It's never too late to change old habits! :) Keep in mind that rattlesnakes try to avoid contact with humans if at all possible, and it's exceedingly rare for them to enter tents. Just making sure the fabric doesn't have holes in it and keeping the entry zippered shut when not being used will be sufficient to prevent any incidents. If you see one in a potentially dangerous location while camping (i.e., near the tent) and there is no ranger or other official to remove it (always try this option first), the best thing to do would be to get a very long branch and gently prod it away from the campsite. Rattlesnakes are easily frightened and that would most likely be enough to convince it from returning again, but not stress it out to the point where it would feel the need to defend its life (i.e., striking at you). The rattlers in Morgan Hill are Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes, Crotalus oreganus oreganus and they can be extremely variable in both color and temperament. Some are green, some are red... Some are perfectly calm, others are like the spawn of satan. Very cool species.
Greensboro, AL

May 31, 2011
2:37 PM

Post #8599735

I worked outside in the South for most of my career (archeology) and the only situations Ive seen where snakes were attracted --rather than repelled or trying to get out of human's way, were: the warm spot under a trash pump in winter. Setting up for use the following morning is likely to disturb a sleeping snake who found a good place to keep warm on a cold night. The other situation is called in the south "copperhead dens". This occurs when copperheads are attracted to rocky places where they can maximize the warmth of the sun on a cool evening--such as abandoned buildings and rocky riverbanks.

Otherwise, an overhead view will most likely show that in the outdoors in the South, Mr. snake is 10 ft in front of you--trying to get away!

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Other Article: Snakes in the Garden- the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Threads you might be interested in:

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