It’s officially springtime on the East Coast of the United States, and as the temperatures rise, all manner of creature starts to emerge. There are bees buzzing, mosquitoes biting, and I imagine we’ll be covered in inchworms by the end of the month. Of all the creatures making their way out into the warm, wide world, my favorites are the snakes. I’m one of those people who like to carefully flip logs, inspect rocky creek beds, and look up into the trees. Yep. I said “up into the trees”.
Listen, before you get all squirmy and start itching from head to toe, I want to try to change your mind about snakes. Let me give this a shot!
A little back story – I was privileged to grow up on a farm, surrounded by hundreds of acres of beautiful Virginia farmland, teeming with wildlife. Opossums, raccoons, whitetail deer, field mice, owls, and of course, snakes. At the time, I had absolutely no appreciation for any of it beyond “that’s beautiful.” I saw countless snakes go down via gardening hoe, shovel, or even car, and I was unfazed because I thought they were awful, worthless creatures. It took becoming a Scout leader and finding my zen in the outdoors before I realized how incredibly interesting and wonderful snakes are, and then it was at least a year of research and forcing myself to join several online herpetology groups before I realized I loved them.
As I write this, we are practicing social distancing in the hopes of flattening the curve on the coronavirus. Here in our house, like every other family in the world, we’ve hunkered down together, cancelled all play dates, and have started home schooling. We’re already an adventurous family, but since we’re all supposed to keep a 6-foot distance from anyone out and about in public, we’re heading into the woods. It’s the perfect time to do so – there are leaves on the trees, the weather is beautiful, birds are chirping, and snakes are coming out of their brumation cycle.
Although we have yet to see a snake (in fact, it seems like everyone is seeing snakes BUT us), we know it’s just a matter of time. I’m not a professional herpetologist, and though I consider myself an amateur, I still have a lot to learn. I want to share with you what I’ve learned in the hopes that, if you don’t end up fascinated by the snakes of Northeast United States, at least you’ll know how to identify and respect them.
Why Are Snakes Important?
Snakes get such a bad rep. A legless creature that is capable of slithering away at lightning-fast speeds, climb trees, and more? Some are venomous, some are not, but they’re all weird looking so they must be vicious creatures with ill intent.
Dudes. Snakes are the unsung heroes of the great outdoors. They are vital to the ecosystems in which they live, are central to the food chain, and protect humans from seriously gross stuff, like diseases spread by rodents and other pests.
As snakes are exclusively carnivores, they are both predators and prey. They help to control the population of their prey, most notably rodents. In large numbers, rats and other rodents will eat the seeds and fruits of plants that are essential to a healthy ecosystem, which halts their reproduction and starves out other animals and insects. Rodents are historically responsible for passing horrendous diseases, like the plague and leptospirosis. Lucky for us, some snakes prefer a good fuzzy rodent for dinner, which is why you see them so often in barns and warehouses.
You also hear about snakes taking up residence in chicken coops, and most people presume they’re there for the hens. That’s not the case, although there’s no doubt at some point a snake has at least tried to eat a hen or two. If you own a coop and find a snake there, it’s doing you a tremendous favor. Rodents LOVE chicken feed and, as we discussed above, they spread disease. Some snakes will enjoy an egg here or there as payment, and for some chicken owners that’s just fine!
Like this Rat Snake…
This is a rat snake, one of my favorites! These guys are named for their prey of choice, which is why these are the guys you’re most likely to find in your barn, warehouse, or chicken coop. There are lots of different rat snakes in the Colubridae family, like the gorgeous black rat snake above and the colorful corn snake in the picture at the very top of this post. Remember when I said that I look up into trees for snakes? I’m looking for these guys! They are amazing creatures with a very special body shape that helps them climb to great heights in search of food, like birds in a nest. Where most snakes are round, rat snakes are shaped like a loaf of bread, with a flat bottom and rounded top. Have you seen the viral videos of the snakes on Ring cameras? Those are almost always rat snakes. They “crinkle” their body into a wavy pattern as they move, which breaks up the outline of their body and helps them camouflage in nature. The ability to climb and contort is what makes them such funny creatures.
Rat snakes are non-venomous, harmless constrictors. You’ll often see them at your local parks in the learning center because they tend to be pretty docile and easy to handle. They do have teeth, and of course they can bite if they feel imminently threatened; if you find yourself on the receiving end of a rat snake bite, you’ll be just fine. Like other harmless snakes, the first aid is pretty simple… wash the area, put a bit of Neosporin on it, and cover it with a clean band-aid.
There’s a great Facebook group out there dedicated to rat snakes called Ratsnakes in Predicaments where members share photos of the rat snakes they’ve found in compromising, often comical situations. If you’re snake squeamish, a few minutes in that group might just make you smile.
Why Are Snakes Lovable?
Okay, guys, bear with me. Snakes are lovable! They aren’t the slimy and ferocious creatures we grew up thinking they were… the villains in the story, the character that hypnotizes and tricks you, the monster that will swallow you whole.
Let’s tackle that first misconception – that snakes are slimy. Think about it. If snakes were slimy, they’d be covered in dirt, sticks, leaves, and other debris at all times. It would make it hard for them to move, navigate, and hunt for prey. Snakes aren’t slimy, or wet for that matter! They are covered in scales, which serve as body armor and camouflage, retain moisture, and provide traction to help snakes move. There are very smooth scales, which give a snake a shiny and slick appearance, and keeled scales, which have a raised ridge that runs lengthwise down the center of the scale and gives the snake a dull appearance.
Smooth Scaled Snakes
A great example of a smooth scaled snake is the smooth earthsnake, a teeny, tiny little snake (they max out at 10 inches long) that lives underground, logs, leaf litter, and other debris. They’re shy, harmless little creatures who love a good earthworm for dinner.
Their smooth scales make them shiny, but, along with their pointy faces, they also help them to burrow underground in search of food and protection. We find them every year when we rake leaves.
Keeled Scaled Snakes
Harmless water snakes have keeled scales, which make them look rough and dull. These guys live in watery habitats, like lakes, swamps, streams, and rivers, and are often seen fishing for dinner or sunning on rocks or branches. They love to eat fish, frogs, and other creatures in their environment. Their scales provide traction as they move through wet and muddy terrain, and help them to retain moisture.
These guys can get pretty chunky, and even though they’re non-venomous, they’re more aggressive than other harmless snakes. A bite from a water snake doesn’t put you in danger any more than that of a rat snake, but it hurts a little bit more. It’s best to enjoy these snakes from a distance.
Funny Snake Antics
What makes snakes lovable, in my opinion, is that they all have incredible adaptations that make them special and, oftentimes, funny.
A rhino rat snake, for instance, has a totally adorable snout. These snakes live in Vietnam and parts of China, and though that horn serves a purpose, science is stumped. My best guess is that it breaks up their body shape and makes their business end look like a harmless leaf.
How about the Arabian sand boa, a snake that looks like it slithered right out of a toddler’s coloring book. As its name suggests, this snake burrows into sand, leaving only its eyes out to watch for both predators and prey. Those eyes on the top of its head give it a real goofy appearance.
There’s always this guy! Wait. Nevermind.
They’re funny and all, but you won’t find them here in the US. What you WILL find, however, is the greatest snake on Earth… in my humble opinion.
Introducing, the eastern hognose snake! I wish you could hear me squealing right now because I adore these harmless little frog-eaters. Just look at that face, with it’s little turned-up nose and smile. How about those gorgeous spots? They have wide jaws that help them to swallow frogs and other wide-bodied prey.
Hognose snakes have this adorable, signature, curly tail that makes them instantly endearing. See that flattened head? When threatened, hognose snakes, the drama queens of the natural world, do their very best cobra impersonation. They create what looks like a hood, and the dark spots on either side of their head give off mega cobra vibes to predators that don’t even know what a cobra is. Also known as puff adders, they suck in air, which puffs up their bodies to make them look bigger, and as they exhale it sounds like big, scary hisses. They make false strikes without even opening their mouths, just hoping the movement is scary enough. They’re venomous snakes, but they have special rear-facing fangs, which makes their bite harmless to humans.
Don’t be fooled by their antics. They’d be better off called something like “scared of their own shadow” snakes, or something similar. When they’ve given you their very best, very scary cobra show and you aren’t fazed, they initiate Plan B… an elaborate death scene.
Guys. Look at that tongue wagging in the air. What’s not to love? Other snakes will put on a similar show, like kingsnakes and grass snakes, often pairing it with a horrendous musk that sends predators packing.
Even The Venomous Ones Are Lovable
The cute snakes are easy to love, but what about their venomous compadres? Every snake deserves some love, so let’s talk about the purpose of venomous snakes and why they deserve to live.
Three venomous snakes call Virginia home; agkistrodon contortrix (Eastern copperhead), agkistrodon piscivorus (Northern cottonmouth), and crotalus horridus (timber rattlesnake). Each one has its merits.
Let’s get everything we perceive as negative out of the way. Copperhead snakes are venomous pit vipers, which means they possess a heat-sensing pit between their eye and nostril that they use to locate prey. It’s an awesome adaptation and, when paired with their beautiful pattern, they blend right into leaf cover and debris, makes them accurate and stealthy hunters. Along with the pit, they also have hooded eyes that give them a menacing expression.
These guys have a gorgeous “Hershey Kiss” pattern that’s easily identifiable on its sides, and from the top that pattern looks like an hourglass. The pattern extends entirely down the sides of the snake, and it has a beautiful black and white pattern on its belly. They have adapted to live in a wide variety of habitats, from rocky and wooded areas, to mountains and overgrowth around a water source. If there’s sunlight, there could be a copperhead. They feel safe under surfaces like boards and logs, so if you’re out and about flipping for snakes, you need to be very careful.
Juvenile copperhead snakes have a bright green or neon yellow tail, which stands out among the debris. These guys are feisty, so it’s important to heed that yellow tail and admire them from a distance.
Of the three venomous snakes in Virginia, copperhead have the weakest venom and bites are very rarely life-threatening. Boy do they hurt! Like most kids, juvenile copperheads tend to take greater risks and are, therefore, more dangerous. Sometimes adult copperheads will give a dry bite as a warning, whereas juveniles will often deplete their venom supply in a single bite. Typical teens!
First Aid for venomous snakes include:
- keeping the bite victim calm and still
- keeping the bite below the heart
- removing jewelry or shoes from the area that was bitten
- covering the wound with loose, sterile bandages
- getting medical help right away
- making note of the physical characteristics of the snake
Things you don’t want to do include:
- attempting to kill or killing the snake
- icing the bite area
- applying a tourniquet
- attempting to suck out the venom or cut the wound to let it drain
Though you should be careful, copperheads don’t tend to be very aggressive. You put yourself at risk of a bite if you attempt to kill a venomous snake, and if you’re successful, the snake can still envenomate you for hours after its death… even if you behead it. Not only is it dangerous, it’s extremely inhumane. Plus, if you have a copperhead in your area and you kill it, another will likely come in and take over its territory. These guys LOVE to eat the rodents in your yard and are, ultimately, doing you a solid by hanging out on your turf. If you’re concerned about the safety of your children and animals, call a professional or simply shoo the snake away with short bursts of water from a hose!
Unlike the Eastern Copperhead, Northern Cottonmouths can’t survive in any kind of habitat. The species name, piscivorous, means “fish devourer,” so you can count on finding these guys in and around water. In fact, they’re commonly referred to as water moccasins. They are venomous pit vipers, and though their pattern is eerily similar to that of a copperhead, they are two very different snakes.
In most cases, they flaunt a similar “Hershey Kiss” pattern, only it’s darker and not as smooth as that of a copperhead. It’s often described as “pixelated”, and it’s easy to see why. They have the same pit and hooded eyes, but also have a dark brown “mask” that runs along the sides of their face. Sometimes they are so dark, you can’t see the patterns and would need to rely on other characteristics to identify them, like the mask and hooded eyes. They prefer to live in swamps, marshes, grassy edges around bodies of water, and even ditches. They’re semi-aquatic, so they spend a lot of time swimming in the water and looking for prey. They prefer to eat fish, reptiles, frogs, invertebrates, and small mammals. They help keep populations of invasive species in check, like rodents and fish. You’ll often see cottonmouths sunning themselves in warm sandy spots or on logs and rocks around the waters edge.
Cottonmouth juveniles also feature a bright green or neon yellow tail, which stands out against their surroundings. Like juvenile copperheads, they’re more aggressive and are more likely to deliver a bite than an adult. Kids these days are real inconsiderate!
Though they look like they’re absolutely furious and out for revenge, these snakes very rarely bite humans. When they feel threatened, they tend to tightly coil and raise only their heads, opening their mouths wide and showcasing their namesake cotton white mouth.
In the event that you do end up bitten by a cottonmouth, make sure you follow the first aid do’s and don’ts above. Though you’re not likely to see a cottonmouth in your yard, you may very well see one out camping or hiking. They play an important role in the ecosystem and deserve your respect. Give them a wide berth and move on! Live and let live.
Crotalus horrid is Latin for “dreadful rattle,” and these snakes certainly earn the name. Timber rattlesnakes are large, commonly hitting between 30 and 60 inches long, but a record stands at 6 feet in length. These snakes have keeled dorsal scales and a dark brown or black crossband pattern with a yellow or gray background. The crossbands look like zigzags from above and are often in the shapes of v’s or m’s. Sometimes they are melanistic, making the pattern difficult to recognize, so you’ll need to rely on other characteristics to make a solid id, like the hooded eyes and defensive rattle.
Timber rattlesnakes live in deciduous forests among fairly rugged terrain, and they seek protection in high areas around watery spots, craggy mountain ledges, and even pine forests and farming areas. They are shy and tend to steer clear of urban and suburban settings, which means you’re not very likely to see one.
These guys prefer t eat small to medium sized rodents. Their favorites are mice and squirrels, but they won’t pass up a good bird or lizard if it’s available. They’ll even eat another snake if they have the chance. They are fiercely territorial, and the males will literally sit on top of females to keep them safe.
Of all three venomous snakes in Virginia, timber rattlesnakes are the most dangerous. Their body and fang size, and the quantity of venom they yield, they are capable of packing quite the punch. The good news is, they brumate longer than other snakes and have a fairly mild disposition. They’d prefer to rattle their tales for an extended amount of time to biting something that isn’t prey.
In the event that you do end up bitten by a timber rattlesnake, make sure you follow the first aid do’s and don’ts above. They play an important role in the ecosystem and deserve your respect. Give them a wide berth, enjoy from a distance, and move on!
Parents, grandparents, teachers, family friends, etc…. have you been reading along with the child in your life and want to learn MORE about snakes? I have a great list of suggested resources that you can refer to often for help identifying and appreciating snakes.
In my role as a den leader and Cubmaster for a Cub Scout Pack, I found that it was imperative to understand the world I was bringing my Scouts out into. We have 12 Points in our Scout Law, one of which is brave, so running scared from a snake was never an option. I took it upon myself to create a Be Snake Safe – Virginia Snakes (PDF) resource that I printed, laminated, and placed in a camping binder that we take on all of our outings. It’s specific to Virginia, but full of great information that can be helpful no matter where you live. Please feel free to download and use this however you see fit!
The Virginia Herpetological Society website is an almost endless trove of information on snakes and other reptiles and amphibians. It’s a must-visit for inquiring minds and includes information like defining characteristics, habitat, and prey. It compares each snake to the other snakes it’s most commonly confused for, which is incredibly helpful and important.
Not a Virginia native? Check out the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, which links to herpetological societies just about everywhere you can think of.
The What Snake Is That website is a great resource for identifying snakes by region across the United States and Canada. Choose your state from the drop down menu and it will serve up all of the snakes you’re likely to find in that area.
I rely heavily on the Snake Identification Facebook Group, and credit it almost entirely for my love of snakes. Members post photos of snakes they’ve found and the moderators, who are full-fledged herpetologists, work to identify them. You will learn more about snakes by simply joining this group than any other resource, in my opinion.
The Wild Snakes: Education & Discussion Facebook Group is run by many of the same moderators, but invites members to openly discuss the characteristics of the snakes being identified there. I suggest following this group, which will fill your feed with awesome snake pics and quickly teach you everything you could ever want to learn about all of them.
You simply cannot beat the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians. This book is FULL of beautiful illustrations and a wealth of information that you can throw in your hiking or day pack and pull out as needed. I have two different copies of this publication and use both regularly, on adventures and with my Scouts.
If you’ve found a snake, have had it identified, and want to add it to one of the fastest-growing citizen science projects online, hop over to HerpMapper.org. They want to know everything about the snake you’ve found, and your contribution furthers their study of snakes around the world. How cool is that?
Are you amazed by the camouflage of snakes and other creatures? Visit the My Little Eye Facebook Page and test your eyes! Can you spot all the critters yourself or did you need help?
Do You Love Them Yet?
Listen, this kind of thing takes time, especially if you have a true fear of snakes. Sometimes the best you can do is learn to respect snakes, and that’s admirable! You don’t have to want to snuggle one to be a snake conservationist.
Did you learn anything new from this post? Do you have a fun snake fact you’d like to share? Did you or your child find a newfound love for these creatures? Let me know in the comments below. Don’t forget to give me a quick like, follow, and/or share!
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