SNAKES

Louisiana has many different species of snake - Speckled King Snake
Scarlet Kingsnake - Chris Evans, University of Illinois (forestryimages.org)
Timber Rattlesnake - Jeffrey J. Jackson, University of Georgia (forestryimages.org)
Dekay's Snake - Ansel Oommen (forestryimages.org)

The Non-Problem That Won’t Go Away

story by Jeff Boundy, Former LDWF Herpetologist

 

“I want to report a snake,” went the introduction to a phone message left at my office. The message was hours old, so by now children had been rushed inside and dogs dragged by their leashes to safety behind locked doors.

 

The neighbors have been texted, and in anxious fear, they take occasional, trembling glances from windows as they post vigil for the supposedly deadly trespasser. The snake’s lair has been identified as the neighbor’s backyard shed, under which it crawled, and no doubt lies in wait, its engorged fangs seeking release in a child’s leg. The authorities have been notified.

 

What the snake saw: As the snake made its way slowly across the lawn, frequently tasting for odors in this new territory, a shadow passed over it. Glancing to the side, it was frightened to see a giant object, many stories high, making menacing motions. The snake froze in fear, looking about for cover. In the opposite direction, just a few feet away, it saw a black strip of shelter, and deciding the cover was close enough, raced beneath the shed. After about 20 minutes of calm, it looked out from under the shed, and satisfied that the danger had passed, slithered to a wall of vegetation, under a fence and along another row of cover until it reached tall weeds. Fifteen minutes later it was within a thicket of briars at the edge of a wood lot, where it resumed tasting the ground for potential prey.

 

A day after the king snake had moved on a neighbor declared, based on verbal description from “Snake Report Guy,” that it was a water moccasin. Two boxes of mothballs had been acquired, which were flung under the shed by the bravest of the locals. The Brave One and the remainder of the group, those not inside peering out windows, backed up a safe distance as they waited for the moccasin to forsake its hideout and flee the toxic vapors to an onslaught of hoes and shovels. For several years the specter of the snake remained, and kids would point to the place where the snake had been seen, always taking a glance around as if it would one day come out, maybe today.

 

Or maybe not, which is usually the case. When I receive a call about a snake that is in someone’s yard, I can confidently tell the caller that the snake will move on and not be seen again - or at least in sufficient cases that I have a better record than the weather man. Why is this person calling me in the first place? Is there an issue with having a snake in the yard? Perhaps the homeowners association requires continuing education exams for its residents:

 

Which one of the following does not belong here:

  1. gray squirrel
  2. chickadee
  3. ribbon snake
  4. Rottweiler

 

Being the statewide point-of-contact for snake questions for over 25 years has convinced me that the correct answer is not “4”

 

Fortunately the 25 years at the phone was preceded by 30 years of hands-on snake experience. I caught my first snakes in 1966 and shortly thereafter began making a note of each snake that I encountered: what species, what it was doing, and where it was located. Patterns of behavior began to emerge from my notes years ago, and my objective has been to learn the haunts, behaviors and peculiarities of each species, as well as the general nature of snakes. Last month I logged snake number 13,000 - a satisfactory number for statistical purposes, but most unsatisfactory for the average homeowner. In fact, a single snake can be an infestation.

 

I think the main reason that snakes create such excitement is that they are usually presumed to be venomous by the observer. It occurred to me that most people in Louisiana can only name up to seven species of native snakes - the rattlesnake, water moccasin, copperhead, coral snake and one to several of the non-venomous species like the grass snake, king snake or the chicken snake. The reasoning is as follows: it isn’t near water so it’s not a moccasin, doesn’t have a rattler on the tail so it’s not a rattlesnake, therefore it is a copperhead. But there are 48 species of snakes in Louisiana, 41 of which are harmless. Of several hundred snake reports that I have received in which the caller declared an identification, about 97% were incorrect, and at least 98% of the time the offending reptile was a non-venomous species.

 

Your yard probably has snakes in it. There are two types of yard inhabitants: permanent residents of one or more pencil-sized species, and at times larger snakes that are just passing through. The king snake in the introductory paragraph was of the latter group - a snake with a large territory in pastures, ditches and woods that occasionally included a yard. However, much of the movements of such snakes is through crawl-over country that must be traversed when seeking optimal zones that contain food and cover. These are dangerous travels in which the snake exposes itself and is most likely to be encountered. The snakes have no big picture of their surroundings, and may reach a barrier, such as the foundation of a house, proceed along the barrier, and both snake and resident meet at the back step. The result is usually one-sided: while the snake scans the immediate area for safe cover, the resident grabs a shovel. It is then that I get the call about a water moccasin that was trying to get into the house.

 

The pencil snakes have small territories, and several may occupy the space of a flower bed. The usual species are the tan and dotted Dekay’s brown snake, and the gray or earth-colored rough earth snake. Both are non-venomous and feed on worms, insects and slugs and usually stay hidden in the leaf litter and monkey grass. They are not, what the know-it-all neighbor will confidently tell you, ground rattlers. They are not a nest of snakes, nor are they baby snakes, nor is the mother nearby, in case the neighbor offers further myth-information.

 

The aggressive snake is another that provides a lesson in snake psychology. Herpetologist Clifford Pope wrote that “snakes are first cowards, then bluffers, and last of all warriors.” Imagine walking along a dark street, and noticing a very large person approaching you who you know intends harm. You first duck into an alleyway and hope the person passes. But the person enters the ally and peers about. At that point you back up to cover and freeze, hoping that you are not spotted. But, when it is obvious that you have been discovered and the intruder advances, you take your best fist-fight stance, then go into fight-for-your life mode: punching, biting, scratching, etc. In the case of snakes, they usually see you first, because to them, you are as big as Godzilla, and you don’t notice them when they pull back into the shrubbery or duck under the fence.

 

In a year you probably never see a snake in your yard, but a dozen snakes may have watched you. If you come upon one that has not reached cover, it will often stop in place and hope that you continue on your way. I often encounter rat snakes that are stretched out and remain frozen in place as I step over them and continue on. If, however, you make apparent that you are upon the snake and aware of it, the snake goes into defensive mode. If I prod the rat snake with my toe, it comes to life by immediately coiling into a striking pose, hissing and vibrating its tail as a warning, its mouth open ready to bite. What the snake is wishing is that you would back away and let it reach the safety of cover.

 

Large snakes have large territories, often covering several or more acres. Radio telemetry studies have tracked individual snakes during their day-to-day travels, but a snake’s activities vary between species. Snakes that actively forage by day, like racers, seem to travel in circuits that include a half dozen or more stop-over sites used for rest.

 

During two years I encountered a speckled king snake under an old road sign that I frequently overturned. Most days it was not there, but its presence was regular, following a pattern that I was unable to discern. Snake biologists Tim Borgardt and Craig Rudolph tracked timber rattlesnakes to discover their annual routines. The snakes wintered in rotted trees, down stump holes or under slabs of abandoned home-sites. In spring they would crawl to summer grounds where they exhibited stereotypic behavior. Once a snake discovered a likely spot to encounter a rat or squirrel, it would lie in ambush posture along a log, base of a tree or game path. There it would wait for prey, sometimes several days at a time, but if nothing showed, the snake would move overland to another likely rodent runway and repeat the process. A successful rattlesnake might obtain three to five meals during the year.

 

Late in summer or early fall is mating time for rattlesnakes and the males are territorial. If you encounter two rattlesnakes raising upright against each other and intertwining, they are battling, not courting. Females are receptive to mating every other year and may not feed while they are gravid. When the young are born the following summer, they remain with the mother for several days until they shed their skin, then the family unit dissolves and each snake goes its own way.

 

Once snakes leave their nests or littermates, they have no interest in others of their kind except during a brief, annual mating period. However, snakes will congregate when there is a shared resource, such as a basking site over a pond or a drying slough crammed with fish. If you replicate a similar resource in your yard, you will attract snakes.

 

You may have a bird feeder in your yard, and if you create a goldfish pond you will also have a snake feeder. Do not be surprised when a yellow-bellied water snake drops by one evening and hoovers all of your koi. When it is satisfied that there are no more fish, the snake will move on - it is not a problem. If you have a garter snake, a Schnauzer, and a grandchild in the backyard together, only the snake is going to suffer. If you are one of 4,679,985 Louisianians, you will not be bitten by a venomous snake this year. The other 15 should not have tried to pin a cottonmouth with a stick, walked barefoot in the woods at night, kept a rattlesnake as a pet or reached down into a weedy trash pile in the swamp. No problem.

 

In 1946 state biologist Nelson Gowanloch wrote a popular article on Louisiana snakes that began “I have a problem with snakes.” He discussed some of our state’s snakes, their behaviors, and how to identify them. In 1961 biologist Percy Viosca wrote a booklet with the same information, which was improved upon in 1971 by herpetologist Ed Keiser. I wrote similar, reassuring articles in the 1990s, and a free booklet on snake habits and identification in 2006. Yesterday I received a call from a panicked citizen whose neighbor saw a snake: “I have a snake problem!”

 

Will it ever go away?

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: After an illustrious 25+ year career with LDWF, Dr. Boundy retired to further pursue his passion for locating snakes and observing their behavior. When asked what else he would do with his newfound free time he replied “not answer the phone.”

WINTER 2020