By Jefferson Weaver
As temperatures warm, people aren’t the only animals spending more time in the great outdoors. Some meetings, however, don’t always go well for new acquaintances, if one party happens to be a snake.
Seeing a snake in the wild is no cause for alarm. If you see one, don’t panic. Leave it alone and walk away.
That’s the advice biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission give to the hundreds of people who call the Wildlife Helpline each year, typically in the spring, wanting to know what to do about the snake slithering in their yard.
“First and most important, do not kill a snake if you see one,” said Jeff Hall, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Commission. “Most people get bitten when they try to kill one, or try to pick one up, so I always tell folks to leave snakes alone. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.
“Most snakes are reluctant to bite because they use their energy or their venom to acquire food, and they don’t see humans as a food source.”
The vast majority of snakes in North Carolina are non-venomous and harmless to humans. Of the 38 snake species native to North Carolina, only six are venomous and of those six, only one — the copperhead — is found statewide. In many areas, including most of the larger urban regions, it is the only venomous snake. Because of their ability to live in a wide variety of habitats — from wooded areas to mountain ridges to suburban backyards — copperheads generate the most phone calls from people who think, often mistakenly, that they have one in their yard.
“While it’s not uncommon for people to have a copperhead in their yard, usually what they have is a non-venomous and harmless species, such as a rat snake or a garter snake, both of which are commonly found in backyard habitats,” Hall said. “Unfortunately, many nonvenomous snakes, like corn snakes, are mistaken for copperheads and killed.
“Copperheads are relatively easy to identify though. Just look for the distinctive hourglass-shaped or Hershey-kiss-shaped crossbands on a light brown or gray body.”
Killing a snake is not only unnecessary but also could be illegal. Four of the six venomous snakes found in North Carolina are protected. The pigmy and timber rattlesnakes are listed as species of special concern while the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and Eastern coral snake are listed as endangered. None of these four species of snakes should be handled or disturbed without a permit issued by the Commission.
Regardless if a snake is venomous or non-venomous, snakes pose little threat to pets and children — if left alone. When confronted or harassed, snakes are more likely to flee than they are to bite. However, if given no escape route or restrained, they will bite or lunge toward their perceived aggressor to defend themselves.
The Commission does not send people out to trap and remove snakes since removing one snake is not going to prevent another one from taking its place. However, Hall provides a few tips that people can follow to make their backyards less hospitable to snakes.
· Clean up the clutter by removing piles of rocks, wood and other debris that attract rodents and snakes.
· Mow the lawn to keep the grass cut short. Snakes prefer tall grasses to seek out their prey. They’re also easier to spot in shorter grass.
· Discourage snakes from entering your home by closing gaps and holes, repairing damage to siding and foundation and sealing openings under doors, windows and around water pipes.
When it comes to snakes, Hall says the most important thing people can do is to educate themselves and others about these cold-blooded reptiles and learn to appreciate them as an important part of the ecosystem.
“Snakes are strictly carnivorous, preying on smaller animals, such as rodents, slugs and insects,” Hall said. “Snakes also serve as an important food source for other animals, like foxes, raccoons, eagles, hawks and owls. Instead of being widely feared and unjustly persecuted, snakes should be appreciated for the awesome creatures they are and treated with respect.”
For other questions regarding human-wildlife interactions, call the Commission’s N.C. Wildlife Helpline toll-free at 866-318-2401. The call center is open Monday through Friday (excluding holidays) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information on snakes, read the Commission’s “Co-Exist with Snakes” handout. For more information about co-existing with other wildlife species, visit the Commission’s Tips on Co-Existing with Wildlife page.