Most snake species are not venomous

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Last Sunday evening, just prior to dark, I was at my home computer when my 12-year-old son Joey came in the house and asked me if there were diamondback rattlesnakes in our area. I told him it was possible, but unlikely, as they are normally found south of Augusta. But as I always say, the snakes don't read our books and sometimes don't know where they are supposed to be. Anyhow, Joey said, "I think one is in our street."

I follow him outside, and about 10 yards from our driveway on the other side of the street is the snake. There was no mistaking that it was venomous, but it was a copperhead. It was about 16-18 inches long. Adult copperheads normally average about 2 to 3 feet long. Their body is tan to brown with darker hourglass-shaped crossbands down the length of the body. Of course, he had the triangular head and elliptical eyes.

I don't kill nonvenomous snakes. But I had to kill this one so I went to my garage, got my hoe and cut the snake's head off.

After I went back inside, I Googled "Snakes of the Southeast" and went to the Savannah River Ecology Web site to see the picture and description of copperheads. According to the Web site, "Copperheads can be found during the day or night, but forage primarily after dark during the hotter parts of the season. In the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, they are frequently observed crossing roads on warm nights.

"Because they are common in forested habitats and are well-camouflaged, copperheads are responsible for the majority of the snakebites in the Southeast each year. Luckily, copperhead venom is not very potent and deaths from copperhead bites are exceedingly rare. Most snake bites occur when someone tries to kill or harass a snake, so the best way to avoid a bite is to leave any snake you find alone."

At the first sign of danger, or human contact, snakes will usually flee. Most snakes strike in defense as a last resort. Keep in mind that of the just under 40 species of snakes that can be found in our area, only four are venomous. So the odds are, when you encounter a snake, it will not be venomous.

Nonvenomous snakes are generally harmless. Unfortunately, there is no single rule to use to tell the difference between a venomous snake and a nonvenomous one. Head or pupil shape has not been confirmed as a sure distinction. Pit vipers have large, triangular heads, but so do nonvenomous water snakes. Pit vipers have elliptical pupils, whereas all harmless snakes have round pupils, but so do venomous coral snakes (which are rare in our area)..

Snakes eat insects, fish, amphibians, birds, rodents, lizards, and other reptiles, and many snakes eat nuisance animals. One rat snake can eat three rats every two weeks.

The following are details on a few of the nonvenomous snakes most commonly found in the Augusta area.

King snakes are found in a wide variety of habitats. Adults can reach four feet in length. Eastern king snakes are black with light yellow or whitish crossbands. They feed on other snakes, including venomous species, as they are immune to the venom of these snakes.

Water snakes are found in and around streams, rivers and swamp environments, but some species have been spotted several hundred feet from water. Water snakes often grow to a length of 4 feet and are light brown on top with darker squares on the back and sides. The brown water snake is the most common and is often mistaken for the venomous water moccasin. This snake frequently basks on tree limbs that overhang water. Brown water snakes feed almost exclusively on fish.

Garter snakes are found in habitats that are damp, although not necessarily near permanent water. They are usually less than two feet long. They have three yellow longitudinal stripes on a dark body. They also have black lines on their lip scales. Although this pattern is common, some garter snakes have a checkered body pattern with poorly defined stripes and a grayish body color. Their bellies are white or light yellow. Garter snakes feed on fish, small reptiles and amphibians. This is the snake I see most often in my landscape.

Rat snakes are most often found in wooded or swampy areas. Adults grow to more than 4 feet in length. Our inland species range from black to light gray and brown. They feed on birds, rats, mice and squirrels. They are known as chicken snakes n farming areas because they readily eat caged chickens. This is the snake that crawled through my garage window two years ago.

Brown snakes are found in woodlands and swampy areas. It's also one of the most common species in residential areas, where they are often spotted in and around debris. I usually see one or two of these every year in my landscape. They feed on earthworms, slugs and lizards. When threatened, they curl their upper lip upward, making their mouths look larger.

Black racers are found in a variety of habitats. Racers are frequently seen crossing the highways during the day. Adults are usually slender, 3 to 5 feet long and black all over, except for a white chin. They feed on frogs, rodents, lizards and insects. I saw a large black racer next to my mother's house in Blue Ridge when I was there over Memorial Day weekend.

In most cases, there is nothing you can do to keep snakes away. If you live next to woods, you are going to have them. The best thing you can do is educate yourself on the species.

Reach Sid Mullis, the director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County, at (706) 821-2349 or smullis@uga.edu.


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