Over the weekend, the little girls made a new acquaintance in the backyard. His name is (now) Sam.
Sam is a 3.5-foot-long Black Racer. My oldest daughter found him with his head stuffed down a small hole on the edge of our fire pit, presumably eating a chipmunk or lizard, our yard is rife with lizards.
My daughter did exactly as she had been taught — to stop if she sees a snake, back away, and let an adult know right away. She was excited and somewhat anxious, but not panicked when she asked me to come and look at the snake. After ascertaining that it was harmless, the whole family came to look.
“Cute,” my 4-year-old pronounced, observing while perched safely on my hip. Sam continued to snack, or maybe was in a food coma, or realized he was going to have to wait like Pooh bear to be skinny again before he could get out of the hole, but he wasn’t going anywhere and the excitement was over, so we went inside to find our own snack.
Once inside, I gave myself a pat on the back for raising such nature-loving children, and then went into the other room and pitched a small private fit. I pranced my feet, scrunched my shoulder up towards my ears, shook out my arms and said “ew, ew, ew, ew, ew.” I don’t like snakes, and this one was in my backyard. I, unlike my daughter, do not think they are cute. I respect their ecological importance, but I prefer them at a good 20 feet, preferably on a hiking trail, where I might conjure up a sincere “cool!”, then leave them in the woods.
BUT, I still left Sam alone to do his thing. I didn’t remove him, didn’t poke him with a stick, and I didn’t kill him.
Every year I get asked to identify snakes in the summer. Usually, I find myself identifying a picture of a snake that has had his head removed over fear that it is, was, venomous. “A copperhead, isn’t it?” they say, eager to justify the killing and still hyped from their perceived brush with danger.
It never is a copperhead.
Usually it is a water snake or a rat snake: something harmless and now dead. Killing nonvenomous snakes is illegal in Georgia, by the way.
Snakes are part of a healthy ecosystem. I intentionally garden for wildlife, knowing that by increasing insect, bird, lizard, and frog populations, snakes will inevitably pass through. That’s just how the food chain works, and to me having wildlife in my backyard is valuable.
However, if you want to actively discourage snakes from your yard, change your backyard habitat. Remove leaves and debris where possible, and trim grass and weeds; this will remove cover for snakes and their prey. Manage any rodent problems that are providing food. Don’t use sulfur; it doesn’t work. Also, putting out mothballs doesn’t work, and is an off-label use, which is illegal and harmful to the environment because it can get into groundwater.
If you do see a snake, identify it from a safe distance. I use this handy guide from the Savannah River Ecology Lab, another UGA unit (https://srelherp.uga.edu/snakes/index.htm). This has photos of Georgia snakes, ranges and photos of juveniles, which can look different from adults. You can also send me a few good-quality photos (taken safely from a distance) if you are unsure.
If you have a nonvenomous snake in your backyard, it is best to leave it alone. If for some reason you need to move it, don’t move it far. Snakes moved into new territories are not likely to survive. Remember that nonvenomous snakes will still bite if they feel threatened, so use a shovel and bucket, pants and gloves.
It is less likely that you will see a venomous snake. Out of the 46 snake species native to Georgia, only six are venomous, and only three are commonly seen in our area: copperheads, canebrake/Timber rattlesnakes, and pygmy rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes have rattles, which is an easy and loud identifying feature, and copperheads have Hershey kiss-shaped markings if looking from the side, with the tip of the “kiss” meeting in the middle. Juvenile copperheads have a yellow-green tail. Learn to identify the venomous snakes accurately, so when you come across non-venomous snakes, you might not know the name, but you’ll know they aren’t harmful.
It is important to be cautious when outdoors. Watch where you are stepping, don’t run in tall grass or wooded areas where you don’t have good visibility, and be careful moving objects that a snake might like to hide under. If you spend much time outdoors, you are going to encounter snakes. Be alert so that you see them before you get up close and can respond appropriately.
And remember, in almost all cases, responding appropriately means letting it be.