Walk on the Wild Side

Brad Harvey: Slithering into snake season

CorrespondentMay 16, 2014 

Merely mentioning the word “snake” tends to send shivers up the spine of many people. And now that the warm season has arrived, the likelihood of running across “old no-shoulders” has greatly increased.

Just last month, a woman was bitten by a copperhead as she walked from a Lake Wylie dock back to her car.

News of such an occurrence almost always results in the general public going into high alert, with fear of dangerous snakes running rampant all over the area as they seek out their next victim.

From that point, it never fails that folks then begin to kill every snake that they come across, which is a much bigger mistake than they realize.

This may come as a shock to you, but here it is: Snakes aren’t out to get you, and that’s true for even the poisonous ones.

Fearing snakes and, ultimately, loathing all of them is actually quite ridiculous, considering that, nationally, there are only four venomous types.

These are: the rattlesnake, of which there are several kinds; the copperhead; the cottonmouth; and the coral snake.

Though all four of these poisonous ones are found in South Carolina, those of us in York County don’t have too much to worry about, since we aren’t even within the home range of two of them.

Over the course of my life, I’ve heard quite a few folks tell of seeing or killing a cottonmouth while fishing or wandering near the waters of Lake Wylie or some local farm pond. But the truth is that what they most likely encountered was the harmless banded watersnake.

To the untrained eye, both the cottonmouth and banded watersnake are identical. In fact, when challenged, the banded watersnake will flatten its head and body to mimic the cottonmouth in every way except the one surefire method for quick determination: It will not raise its head and open its mouth to display the puffy white tissue for which the cottonmouth is named.

The home range of the cottonmouth stops on the northern edge of the Midlands, so to have any real chance of seeing one you’ll have to run about an hour south of here.

The same holds true for the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Yes, we do have rattlesnakes, but the Carolina pygmy and canebrake (timber rattler) are much more prevalent in our area, and even they are somewhat rare, being found in a few small pockets of our locale.

Rattlesnakes are naturally most active in the mornings after the dew has dried. Once temperatures have climbed to the high 80s, they will seek both shade and shelter for the majority of the day and it’s not likely that you’ll run into one that’s out in the open mid-afternoon.

All the coral snakes that call the Palmetto State home reside in the Coastal Plain and are of no worry to those of us here in the Piedmont.

Even if you do happen upon one when traveling down there, they are quite docile, and reports of them biting people are nearly nonexistent.

As the lady on Lake Wylie had the misfortune of learning a few weeks back, our biggest threat locally comes from the copperhead.

Unlike the sound of a rattler’s tail, the copperhead has no means of attempting to scare away a perceived threat.

Couple that with the fact that they become more nocturnal in the hotter months, and it’s no surprise to find that this snake is responsible for the majority of poisonous snake bites, as they strike in defense when being stepped on.

What this all means is quite simple. Learn how to differentiate between the two types of venomous snakes that inhabit our area and the 47 other types of harmless snakes that we have and you can easily keep from driving yourself “batty” from fear when crossing paths with just any old snake.

Rattlesnakes are quite obvious. When they are afraid they shake their tails rapidly, which causes the rattles on the end to send out a very audible warning to anyone or anything that is getting too close.

Copperheads, on the other hand, must be seen instead of heard, but telling them apart from their nonvenomous cousins is quite easy.

The markings of a copperhead feature a very obvious hourglass shape to the bands that cross their bodies. Some of these snakes are darker in color while others are quite vibrant, but the shape of the markings themselves is the real key, as none of the other snakes out there carry the same design.

Even though these two are the only poisonous snakes that we have, most people still seem to have it in their heads that snakes, all snakes, are bad, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Our most common ones, the nonpoisonous varieties such as the black, red rat snake and king snake, do us all a great service by helping to control the rodent population, which is known for carrying a variety of diseases that afflict far more people across the country than snake bites. And, for the record, snakes are not known to carry any diseases.

In a sense, these friendly snakes even protect us from the two poisonous ones.

Though the diamondback is the largest poisonous snake in America and both it and the copperhead are loaded with venom, neither is a match for the average king snake, which will kill and quickly devour them.

The best course of action when encountering any snake is to just let it be. If you see a snake around your home, it’s there for a reason which, of course, means that there is a plentiful food source around. Simply put, it means you have rats or mice.

Once a snake has depleted that food source, it will merely move on in search of new hunting grounds, and you’ll never see that rascal again.

Another good reason for leaving a snake alone is that a large percentage of folks bitten by poisonous snakes are actually bit by them while attempting to kill them. It should be understood that no snake has an inherent desire to bite a human, and they only do so when in fear for their lives.

If you’re not messing with him, even the biggest, nastiest-looking old rattler just wants to be ignored by you, and he’ll never advance in your direction without provocation.

The best advice that I’ve ever seen or heard on the subject of co-existing with snakes came from a bumper sticker that my daughter, Maggie, picked up several years ago.

It reads, “Give a snake a break!”

That couldn’t be more true, because, despite what you might think, we’re actually a lot better off with them than without them.

Brad Harvey is a freelance writer in Clover. Visit his website at www.bradharveyoutdoors.com or follow on Twitter @BHarveyOutdoors.

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