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September 01, 2012   Email to Friend 

Is the Only Good Snake a Dead Snake?
Chas Moore, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Corn snake photo courtesy of Richard Dowling
Most people have an innate fear of snakes, believing the only good snake is a dead snake. These ophidiophobes (people with a fear of snakes) are under the impression that no snake is beneficial and, as a result, instinctively kill every snake they see.

In actuality, most snakes are docile, non-aggressive creatures that serve a vital role in nature. Though all snakes are carnivorous, they eat only other smaller animals and, depending on the snake’s species, consume a wide range of prey. Most snakes readily eat rodents such as mice and rats, while others prey on insects. Who doesn’t want fewer mice, rats and bugs around? If it weren’t for snakes, many areas would be overrun with these pests.

Snakes are also beneficial to farmers. They help keep rodent populations down in seed or grain storage areas, barns, gardens, fields and homes. King snakes even eat other snakes, including venomous snake species such as rattlesnakes.

Unless they are provoked, snakes in North America will not attack. Contrary to popular belief, snakes usually have to be picked up, cornered, stepped on or harmed in some way to provoke a strike. The snake’s first response is almost always to flee rather than strike.

Of all the snake species found in Alabama, only six are venomous. These include pit vipers like Timber Snakes, Eastern Diamondbacks and Pygmy Rattlesnakes, Copperheads and Cottonmouths, as well as the Coral Snake. Anyone who spends time in the outdoors should learn to identify these snakes and avoid them. Pit vipers have heat-sensing pits on their heads, which help them locate warm-blooded prey. They have triangular shaped heads and stout, robust bodies. Non-venomous snakes have heads that are not much larger than the rest of the body.

Coral snakes are small, secretive snakes that live mainly underneath rotting logs and leaf litter, where they search for insects. They are rarely encountered by humans, yet are easily identified by their coloration. Coral snakes typically have alternating rings of red, yellow and black on their bodies. Old sayings such as “red on yellow will kill a fellow,” “red on black-poison lack,” or “red on black-friend of Jack” help people to distinguish the venomous coral snake from other similarly colored non-venomous snake species such as the Scarlet King Snake.

If an unknown snake species is encountered, it is best to simply leave it alone. People are bitten each year while attempting to kill a snake, which puts the snake in an understandably aggressive mood. Some are bitten when they pick up a snake they think is dead. While no one wants a venomous snake around their house or yard, it’s best to leave snakes alone. Venomous snakes serve an important role in the ecosystem, just like the non-venomous species.

If bitten by a venomous snake, it is important not to panic. Snake bite victims should be taken to a hospital as quickly as possible. Most snake bite victims do not die if treated in a reasonable amount of time. In fact, more people are killed each year in North America from bee stings than from venomous snake bites.

The best way to avoid attracting snakes around homes is to remove anything that may attract prey such as mice, rats, chipmunks and insects. Remove any wood, lumber or brush piles from around yards, and keep lawns and fields mowed regularly. Keep fence rows clean of unnecessary brush and tall grass. De-clutter storage areas such as basements, out-buildings or sheds, and keep livestock feed or grain stored in metal, sealed containers.

In the future, don’t be so quick to kill every snake. Leave them alone, and they will go away. Exchange the fear for respect, and be satisfied knowing they are helping to reduce the numbers of disease-carrying rats, mice and insects.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR visit www.outdooralabama.com.

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