Well, it is that time of year. Folks in the suburbs are finding snakes in their backyards, their garages, or slithering across their driveways. Their immediate response is to grab a hoe, or a shovel, or whatever is at hand and beat it until it is dead. As the saying goes, “the only good snake is a dead snake”. Totally false! I understand the reaction, but, the fact is, a dead snake is not nearly as good as a live one. Y’all are killing more beneficial than harmful ones. Le’s take a look at that.
There are only four venomous snakes common to the Pineywoods of East Texas: three types of pit vipers (rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths) and the coral snake. Pit vipers are named for the small opening between the eye and the nostril on each side of the head that senses heat from warm-blooded prey. It is very observable giving the head a triangular appearance. (However, some non-venomous snakes flatten out the head when threatened as a menacing look.)
There are two simple rules in dealing with snakes in your yard. First, stay calm and be observant. Secondly, walk away slowly. Snakes do not chase people. Also, you should know the venomous snakes in our region first, then you can learn about the other commonly seen ones. Here is how to identify each.
This is the most identifiable as it is the only pit viper with a rattle on the tail-end. When threatened, it coils up, lifts its tail, and shakes the rattle as a warning. Although there are as many as fifteen varieties in Texas, the most common for East Texas is the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), aka Canebreak rattlesnake, found in wooded areas and wet bottomlands. A thick-bodied adult averages 4-1/2 feet in length, colored brown or tan with wide, dark cross bands, and an entirely black tail. Not all snakes heard “rattling” are rattlesnakes. Some non-venomous snakes move their tails swiftly among the leaves to imitate a rattling sound.
Of the three subspecies the Southern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortix contortrix) is most prevalent in East Texas. About 20-30 inches long these are masters at camouflage. Their tan or pale brown bodies are well marked with an hourglass band, broader on the sides and narrow on top. They prefer piles of leaves and decaying logs as cover. This is the one most commonly found around your yard.
The Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) has a very thick body with an average length 3-1/2 feet. When threatened their mouths open widely showing the cotton-white inside, thus the name. At birth their color is similar to that of a copperhead. As they mature the pattern darkens to all but invisible. They are nearly invisible in water, and, yes, they can bite underwater. Generally, they will lie motionless or run from a threat. Still, one must be careful as Cottonmouth venom is worse than a Copperhead’s. As the alternate name indicates, Water Moccasins generally stay around water’s edge, like ponds, swamps, and lakes.
The Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius tener), aka North American Cobra due to being of the same family as cobras, is about 18 to 20 inches long. It is most distinctive with its bands of red, yellow, and black. The large red band is bordered on either side by narrow yellow bands, thus, “red and yellow kill a fellow”. Common more to southeastern than northeastern Texas, one finds them in woodlands and the coastal plains. (Having said that Mission Tejas State Park just posted a picture of one just last week.) They are extremely venomous. However, they rarely bite (accounting for less than 1% of snake bites annually), do not strike like rattlers, and have an inefficient venom delivery system.
Remember, the only good human is an educated human. Here are some safety tips.
- Always be aware of your immediate surrounding as snakes blend well.
- Keep a well manicured yard. Remove piles of rocks, dead or decaying wood, and leaves. Avoid snake “repellents” as they do not work.
- Wear protective leather gloves, boots, and long pants when clearing debris from your yard.
- Keep bird seed and other foods that attract rodents tightly secured. If you attract the prey, you will attract the predator.
- If you sense a snake is nearby, freeze until you find it, then, back away slowly. Snakes will retreat given the chance, unless surprised or cornered.
- Never pick up a “dead” snake by hand. A dead snake may envenomate by reflex action.
- Most snake bites occur when a person is trying to kill the snake. Leave it be and it will go away.
If you are interested in additional information, check out the facts at the sites as follows:
Texas Parkes and Wildlife Department (https://tpwd.texas.gov/education/kids/wild-things/wildlife/texas-poisonous-venomous-snakes)
Herps of Texas (http://www.herpsoftexas.org/view/snakes)
TPW Magazine May 2015 (https://tpwmagazine.com/archive/2015/may/ed_2_vipers/)
Texas Snake ID (http://www.texassnakeid.com/North_TX_venomous.html)
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has an excellent list of Dos and Don’ts for safety around snakes. (https://tpwd.texas.gov/education/resources/texas-junior-naturalists/be-nature-safe/venomous-snake-safety)
All photos from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Special thanks to Paul Crump, Herpetologist, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, for his review of this article.