I did this post for my NextDoor group but it is too long to directly post. So I am putting it here and I thought my regular community members and listeners to my podcast might find it interesting as well.
My Annual Attempt to Create Sensible Snake Awareness
Let me start with I have no issues killing an animal that poses a threat. I mean I run a small farm and hunt, etc. But I hate senseless killing due to fear. Additionally there are several species of venomous snakes relatively common in our general area and people do need to be careful and aware. What follows are the 5 most common snakes in this area but as you will see many are common in some areas and nearly nonexistent just a few miles away within the area served by this NextDoor group.
As to my experience, I have worked snakes since I was 11 years old, both captive and in the wild and was properly trained since then in dealing with venomous animals. I am of the Carl Kaufield school of thought, don’t put your hands on venomous animal and you will likely never get bit. Proper tools enable this, if you don’t have them, you likely don’t know how to use them anyway. Suffice to say the vast majority of bites that occur in the US are on young males age 16-35 and are on the lower arm and hands.
That should tell you how said bites tend to occur. If you have not figured it out from that, it means young males tend to be risk takers (stupid) and do dumb things with snakes and get the majority of the bites.
If you remove those bites and bites by “hot” animals kept in captivity only about 15-20% of venomous bites annually in the US are “legitimate bites”. By legitimate I mean the person was not screwing with the snake and got bit due to no real fault of their own. That is still quite a few bites so awareness is key.
Last before I break down what you should know about these 5 common critters from our area, yes there are there are others including venomous ones like say the Coral Snake. Gonna say if you get bit by a coral you likely really messed with it a lot.
Rattlers are here too, but I actively look for snakes, have been here 10 years and have yet to see one in this general area. Not saying they are not here, just saying they are not in the top five most common for the area served by this NextDoor Group.
Here we go
Number One – Texas Rat Snake – the number one most common snake in our area. Sadly very often mistaken for copperheads and they are very dissimilar so this should not happen. If you keep chickens or ducks and eggs seem to be missing one or several of these are likely in your coop, often living under it. They relish eggs. Totally harmless, they bite but a scratch on briars is a lot worse. What gets them killed so often is they like to bluff and bluster. They puff up, rattle their tails in debris and hiss very loud and strike (we call this mimicry, pretending to be dangerous in hopes of being left alone). Unless you actually grab one 9 out of 10 times that strike is a full on bluff, they know they have nothing.
Put yourself in their shoes, a very large rat snake is about 5-6 foot, but weights only say 4-6 pounds. An average human is a monster to them, absolutely terrifying. They are afraid you are going to eat them, because a lot of things eat snakes. I remove a couple dozen from my coop every year. The one thing to know is they STINK when the bluff fails and you grab them. This is called musking and they gape open their cloaca and dump musk if they can’t get away. If you get it on your hands it takes a lot of work before your hands stop stinking, like you still have a faint aroma a day or two later. Please don’t kill these guys they really are harmless.
Number Two – Plain Belly Water Snake – We have several water snakes here of the family Nerodia the two most common are the Green Water Snake and the Plain Belly which is pictured in this post. I have seen very few Greens here but there are tons of them in other area lakes, the Plain Belly is the one I see most here. These are very often killed as water moccasins. What gets them killed is that they also use mimicry. They pull their heads back into their bodies to make them bigger and people see “Oh my God a triangle”, it is like the rat snake though, just a bluff. Older ones are also heavy bodied and hence also resemble moccasins. A year or two back someone posted a video here of a wildlife control officer removing one from their house. He even said it was a moccasin, it wasn’t, trust me.
In one group I was in on the early internet days of people who fancied themselves snake experts I posted four pictures of this species at different ages and regional patterns. When I asked which of the four was a moccasin, it started a fight as to which was, several said they all were. If you zoomed in you could see they all had round pupils and no pits on their faces. Even with that when I told people they were all common non venomous water snakes most never believed me. So ingrained are we that heavy body, dark color, water snake equals moccasin.
Even when I said all these pictures were mine, some still held out, “i KnOw a MoCCaSin wHeN I sEE oNe” and such.
These guys end up surprisingly far from water. I found one trying to eat a toad on my front porch the year before CoVid started. I am a few miles from any surface water. I think the one the officer removed was right off Billings and quite close to me. Like a rat snake they will strike, hiss but mostly try to run. They will also musk if caught, the stench is nasty but not quite as bad as a rat snake. If you push one and it bites you, you will bleed a bit and it will hurt more than a rat snake. Why? They eat fish and frogs. Both are slimy. So they have fairly long teeth as a result of genetic adaptation. Please leave these guys alone they cause zero trouble and mostly stick to lakes and creeks.
Number Three – Yellow Belly Racer. These are extremely common and even adults are too small to eat eggs unless you keep quail or something. Totally harmless and fast little critters. When babies they have a pattern much like a young rat snake but quickly turn a beautiful solid olive green back and pretty yellow belly. A fence lizard could bite you harder than one of these things, a house cat is 100x more dangerous.
What gets them killed? In this case pure ignorance, “only good snake is a dead snake” mind set. I have grabbed dozens of these bare handed and they might bluff strike or gape their mouth but I have never been bitten without even trying to avoid it. I am not saying it can’t happen just they really don’t do it as a matter of course. Since they are not even a threat to your eggs, just pretend these guys are lizards, which is the thing they most eat by the way.
I have to say I have seen more of these guys around that any of the other snakes on this list. I had one for a year that was like a wild pet I’d see him every day walking my property and he’d cruise along a bit till he got scared and would bail into a brush pile. I even named him, “Speedy”.
Number Four – Cotton Mouth (aka Water Moccasin) Bluntly of the two common venomous snakes in the area while you don’t want to be bitten by either, this is the worse of the two. They actually have similar venom to the copperhead, but these guys dump more of it on a typical bite and it is more toxic. Where I grew up in the Florida they were called “chicken snakes” because they threaten you when you get to close and chill when you back off, so stupid people played chicken with them, (remember the demographic most often bitten). The closer you live to the lake or creeks the more common these are. That said, they just are not that common here. We walk the nature center a lot, I used to fish around here a ton, bank and boat. For every moccasin I have seen I have seen 200ish common harmless water snakes.
Like all pit vipers (every venomous snake in the US except corals are pit vipers) they have vertical pupils and pits on their face. But the face and head of one of these is incredibly distinctive. It isn’t just a diamond shape it is pointed like an arrowhead and the angles are sharp. The biggest difference in moccasins vs. common harmless water snakes is behavior. Water snakes tend to haul butt if they see you, they don’t like to stand their ground, or they remain motionless and hope you will not see them.
Moccasins are the snake that bites the second most people (legitimate bites) every year because they do stand their ground. They want no trouble, that is why the gape and show that white inside their mouth (cottonmouth). But if you don’t back off, they are quick to bite if you push your luck.
They are most dangerous early in the year as they first come out of brumation (similar to hibernation). They sleep in mud holes and early in the year are often coated in mud like paint and blend in even more than normal. They also tend to be cold in the mornings of spring and cold snakes move slow so stepping on one is more likely.
If you need to kill one I get it but they are best left alone unless in a place where they are dangerous to pets and children. Don’t jack with these guys, they are heavy bodied and look slow and crawling wise they are but their strike is amazingly fast. A bite is serious, needs swift medical attention. People do die from these bites but bees kill more people every year. Stay calm, I will post venomous snake first aid next week.
Also remember the reptile brain is the most primitive of all higher animals. Snakes move and even bite and respond to touch after death. I have seen headless snake bodies rear back as if to bite. Hence a dead snake can bite, use care if you kill and remove one. Keep your hands off it and bury it, that is the safe bet.
Number Five – Copperhead this snake is either very common in our area or almost nonexistent (almost doesn’t mean, not at all) depending on where you live. Literally a mile or two is the difference between seeing them every day in spring or never seeing one at all.
It is also a snake you do not want to be bitten by but the good news is very few people die from a bite of a copperhead, even if untreated. That DOES NOT MEAN treatment is not necessary. The venom of the copperhead is again very similar to that of the moccasin they are in fact in the same family of snakes as the moccasin. This family is called Agkistrodon.
They share a lot of characteristics. While not fully aquatic like the moccasin they do like swampy, wet areas. I spent most of my teens in rural Pennsylvania and while they are considered a upland species I saw most of them in creek areas or swampy areas in the mountains. This is why you guys near the lake see so dang many in the spring and just a few miles away I have yet to see one here on my property after being here a decade. Again, doesn’t mean they won’t show up just less likely in dry areas.
The copperhead is likely to bite for a similar reason to the moccasin, it tends to lay still when approached hoping its camouflage will keep it from being attacked. Unlike the moccasin though it tends to not threaten and simply bites once it feels it has no alternative.
For this reason both species are considered “aggressive” but it is likely calling a dog that only bites you if you back it into a corner aggressive. Again you are monster to a snake. Thing is they really blend in. A copperhead bite sucks, I know, I was bitten on the calf while fishing when I was 19 on leave from the Army. I spent a day and a half in the hospital and the bill I would likely still be paying if the Army didn’t pick up the cost, this was in 1992. Again though copperheads causing death is exceedingly rare in the US.
There have only been 5 documented deaths in the entire nation in the last 23 years from copperheads. Four of these involved people handling the snake in some way. In one of those the idiot was bitten once in each hand before putting it down. It is important to understand a snake being restrained will in all likelihood dump more venom that one biting due to you simply being too close. In fact many too close bites are “dry bites”, venom is a precious commodity to a snake. When restrained though they tend to pump it hard. This is why handling bites and or full stepped on bites tend to be worse.
Also of the five deaths two were anaphylactic shock, same reason some die of bee stings. One was an old fat guy that had a heart attack the day after the bite and many dispute the cause of death on this one. One was a guy who was bitten and went home, had a few drinks and went to sleep seeking no treatment. Get it? You don’t want a bite or the medical bill, but driving your car is more likely to kill you any given day then a copperhead even if you are bitten.
It is worth noting that this low death count is in spite of the fact that there are more copperhead bites in the US annually than any other snake. For example, though most fatal bites are attributed to rattlesnakes, the copperhead accounts for more snakebite incidents than any other venomous North American species. Rattlesnake bites, by comparison, are approximately four times as likely to result in a death or major effects as a copperhead bite. Copperhead bites are more common simply because there are more copperheads living near human settlement and they don’t issue a warning rattle.
Copperheads are really distinctive in marking but like their cousins the moccasin their heads are also distinctive. Not just the “triangle” of other vipers like rattlesnakes but the sharp angles, etc. In fact the moccasin and copperhead are two of the three snakes in the family Agkistrodon the third is commonly known as cantil and is found in southern Mexico and most of Central America.
The cantil is also called the “lancehead” (though this is a mistake, true lanceheads are in the Bothrops family and exist further south in South America). If paranoid and psychotic was a snake it would be a true lancehead. Fortunately the only way you will find one in North America is in captivity.
Final thoughts on the relative danger of Copperheads and Moccasins
Especially in early spring use caution and watch where you step, juveniles of both Agkistrodon species are fish eaters from the egg but as juveniles both also really like cicadas. So that brings them further from wet areas. Heavy spring rains expand their range as well.
They also seem to love curling up in flower pots. People are often bitten (again legitimate bites) tending potted plants so use caution when gardening, etc. Also snakes are ectothermic (cold blooded), so they like warm areas like patios and porches that stay warm after dark. Bare feet in early evening on porches and step stones is another prime time for legitimate bites.
Full first aid post for bites will come next week but let me say, the cut and suck concept and the kits for doing so are terrible ideas and do more harm than good. Pouring whiskey on it also is stupid. Avoid such things.