Snakes make pretty good neighbors

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Garter snake

Snakes love warm summer days. As reptiles, their body temperature mirrors air temperature.

That’s why snakes are most active this time of year. It’s also why snake complaints peak in July and August.

When people ask how to deal with unwanted snakes in the backyard, I offer my standard “defense of snakes” explanation.

Nonpoisonous snakes are harmless. They eat mice, rats and chipmunks. Having them near the house is a good thing.

In fact, back in West Virginia I placed pieces of sheet metal and plywood inconspicuously on the edges of the yard as snake habitat.

And whenever I lifted one of those bits of cover, I invariably found at least one snake.

Usually, it was a beautiful little ringneck snake, a juvenile rat snake or a young milk snake.

Some people find providing snake habitat shocking. These are the people who kill every snake they find.

“The only good snake is a dead snake,” they say with authority. But that is the voice of ignorance.

Nonpoisonous snakes

Most snakes encountered in the backyard are likely to be harmless.

Garter snakes (seldom longer than 36 inches) can be recognized by three long stripes that run the length of the body.

Ringneck snakes (up to 20 inches) are charcoal gray with a gorgeous yellow or orange ring around the neck.

Green snakes (20 to 40 inches) almost glow a bright lime shade of green.

They blend in perfectly with fresh growing vegetation, so they often fall victim to lawn mowers.

In death, green snakes quickly turn blue as unstable yellow pigments break down, leaving only the more stable blue pigments behind.

Black rat snakes (5 to 7 feet long) and eastern milk snakes (up to 48 inches) are the most alarming species that might commonly inhabit backyards and the only harmless snakes whose bite might break the skin.

Recognize juvenile rat snakes by irregular brown blotches marking a gray body.

Friend or foe

At a glance, milk snakes and copperheads can be particularly confusing. The basic color of each is rusty brown, but the copperhead has a much richer copper tone.

milk snake
Milk snake

Furthermore, both species have dark bands that straddle the back and reach down the sides. The milk snake’s “saddles” are bordered in black and are widest across the back.

copperhead
Copperhead

The copperhead’s saddles, on the other hand, are narrower on the back and wider on the sides. A copperhead’s bands have an hourglass shape.

Lastly, a copperhead’s belly is unmarked and cream-colored. A milk snake’s white belly is marked with black squares that create a checkerboard effect.

Each year, countless young rat and milk snakes are hacked with a hoe or shot in cases of mistaken identity.

Poisonous pit vipers such as copperheads and rattlesnakes have triangular heads, vertical pupils and prominent heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils.

These characteristics can be difficult to see from a distance. However, if you’re close enough to hack a snake with a hoe, you’re close enough to detect head shape.

I understand people’s desire to rid their backyards of poisonous copperheads, but I’m certain many of the “copperheads” killed each year are milk snakes and even juvenile black rat snakes.

The facts

Though the subject of snakes is distasteful to many, here are a few points to ponder as I beg for mercy on backyard snakes’ behalf.

  Most snakes, even poisonous ones, eat insects, mice, rats and other small rodents. Snakes are good neighbors;

  When disturbed, snakes usually just slither away. They prefer to avoid contact with humans.

To avoid accidental encounters with snakes, watch where you place your hands and feet when roaming fields and woodlands, especially in rocky areas.

And wear gloves when weeding ground cover around the house;

  Though copperheads are more common and widespread than rattlesnakes, their bite is much less dangerous.

That’s because copperheads are smaller, they deliver less venom and their venom is weaker than rattlesnake venom.

I know of only one documented human death caused by a copperhead bite;

  Finally, treat any poisonous snake bite seriously. Two (sometimes just one) puncture wounds identify a venomous snake bite. Keep victims calm and quiet; then get them to the nearest hospital as quickly as possible.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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