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© 2013 Shanna Lea
Are you afraid of snakes? Many people are terrified of them, and go into a panic if they see one, thinking that all snakes are poisonous and out to chase them down.
As a child, I spent a lot of time in the pastures where I grew up. Snakes were always around, but I learned the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes. I learned where they would most likely be at different times of the day. But, most of all I learned awareness. Just being aware of looking before placing my hands or feet anywhere.
There were many times a snake would be curled up in the hay, or lying under the hood on top of a truck engine. We even had one that draped his body along the top rail of the wooden fence in the front yard, so you had to be careful before grabbing the water hose that was there too!
We had prairie rattlers, bull snakes, hognose snakes, racers and milk snakes. Coral snakes came in on the cattle trucks occasionally, and we learned the difference between their color patterns from the milk snakes.
As a child I often hiked out through the pastures and one day found a 6 foot long diamondback rattlesnake. I watched her go about her business and trailed her for a while. She never felt threatened by me and I kept my distance and respected her. I never felt threatened by her. It was interesting to tag along on her journey for a bit, to just see where she went.
I don’t advise anyone to do that who is unfamiliar with snakes. It takes time to gain knowledge and understanding of all creatures, especially those who can be lethal. That’s why it is so important to always be learning about the natural world, find out if what you fear is based in fact or myth.
Given the chance, most of the time, snakes are going to try to get away from you, not chase after you. And if you know how to tell a venomous snake apart from the non-venomous ones, you will feel more confident and secure in your surroundings.
When I homeschooled my kids and we went hiking everyday, I taught them how to look for the places that a snake would be. Shadows under rocks outcroppings or tall grass or yucca, cool places during the heat of the day, warm spots in the cool of the morning, and always look for a pattern that seems out of place which is good camouflage cover.
There were many times we were surprised. Like the coachwhip snake we found in the barn. When I picked him up to remove him, I found out why they are called coachwhips. He was a handful, whipping his body this way and that until I released him. We named him George and George showed up everywhere: in the mesquite branches at face level, in the barn, in the hay bins and around the camper—looking for mice and pack rats.
Hognose snakes are harmless, have little upturned noses and are fun to watch. When they feel threatened, they flatten their necks and hiss, acting like a cobra. If this doesn’t work, they will roll over and play dead, even emitting a foul musk smell and hang their tongue out of their mouth. They are sometimes nicknamed ‘puff adder’ or ‘hissing adder’ but that is not scientifically correct.
Which snake in the pictures below is venomous? ***
What is the difference between venomous snakes and non-venomous snakes? How do you identify poisonous snakes when you are out hiking around?
There are more harmless snakes in America than venomous ones. So it makes sense to learn how to identify the venomous ones first. Get a good field guide to snakes to help you. A good field guide like U.S. Guide to Venomous Snakes and Their Mimics will have pictures and descriptions of the characteristics that identify a poisonous snake and a look-a-like.
There are four families of poisonous snakes in the United States: Copperhead, Water Moccasin (or Cotton Mouth), the Coral Snake and the Rattlesnake.
Look each of these families up in your field guides, journal about their characteristics and draw them in your Nature Journal to retain what you are learning. For instance, Water Moccasins, Rattlesnakes and Copperheads all have elliptical or vertical shaped pupils, whereas non-venomous water snakes have round pupils. A triangular head shape is another characteristic to look for in a venomous snake. Color patterns are an additional marking to look for. The rhyme “Red touches yellow, kills a fellow. Red touches black, is a friend to Jack”, can tell you if it is a coral snake or a milk snake.
I highly recommend reading Snakebuddie’s blog post “Is This Snake Venomous? What to Look for when Dealing with Snakes” and a couple of field guides to deepen your knowledge of snakes.
With the right knowledge, you can overcome unnecessary fear and keep yourself and your family safe while exploring and learning nature.
And don’t pick up any snakes until you are knowledgeable and sure what kind it is. Leave them in their habitat, as they are important to the overall health of the ecosystem.
*** Answer to the pictures– the first one, Heterodon_nasicus, is a harmless hognose snake. The second one is Crotalus viridis nuntius, a prairie rattle snake, venomous.