by Whit Gibbons

October 3, 2004

Except for those of us who have to deal with hurricanes, most people enjoy autumn. Cool sunny days and even cooler nights. One of the reasons I really like fall in the Southeast is that snakes are much in evidence. Contrary to perceptions that snakes are spring and summertime animals, the numbers of individuals of most North American species are actually greater in the fall than any other time of the year and often more visible because vegetation cover is reduced. So--because I like snakes, autumn is here, and snakes need all the good press they can get, I feel justified in writing once again about these important components of our natural environments.

Most U.S. snakes are born in August or September. Due to natural deaths and a few that are intentionally caused by humans, the actual numbers of every snake species decreases each month from fall to late summer. Baby snakes often make their debut in carports or on patios as they search for their first meal in early fall. Another reason for the prevalence of snake sightings in the fall is that both adults and young begin searching for safe hiding places to spend the winter dormancy period. Because they are more active aboveground than normal, they are more likely to be seen. And some species, such as canebrake and timber rattlesnakes, mate in the fall. The big males are often seen crossing roads or wandering around in woods and fields searching for females.

I receive many reports of snake sightings in autumn. A typical snake inquiry is generally from someone who has just had a close encounter. People usually just want to be assured that the snake in their yard is not one of the venomous species. I am wary of identifying a snake based on someone's verbal description, even though I may think I know what it is. For example, a snake in an attic is nearly always a rat snake and would almost never be a rattlesnake, cottonmouth, or copperhead. But I do not want to declare that it is unquestionably a rat snake. Exceptions in biology are all too common, and I would not want to have someone bitten by the one copperhead in a thousand that decided an attic was a nice place to hide. Digital photography has been a significant advancement in snake identification. A simple email with a brief description of location and habitat accompanied by an attached photo of the snake itself is usually all that is required.

I do not claim that all snakes are harmless. Clearly, some protect themselves with fangs and venom, and under certain circumstances people end up the victims. So, yes, some snakes can hurt you. But so can some dogs. And I can say on behalf of snakes that, just as with dogs, you usually have no cause for alarm. Snakes are not out to hurt or bother anyone--they just want to be left alone to find food, another snake, or a hiding place. Rest easy knowing that no venomous snake in North America will intentionally pursue a person, although some will stand their ground and even strike if you get too close. But they never come looking for you.

Our natural environments, which include snakes, are priceless. Because of peoples' fascination with and fear of these sinuous reptiles, snakes serve as a barometer of the public's sensitivity toward wildlife and natural habitats. Attitudes about snakes are one measure of the extent of environmental education in a region. The simplest rule for anyone who does not like snakes is to leave them alone. But a more productive approach is to get to know a herpetologist or at least someone knowledgeable about and comfortable with snakes. The more you learn about our native wildlife and their habitats, the more you'll enjoy those autumn walks, even if it's just a stroll around your own backyard.

Admittedly, some people will probably never learn to tolerate snakes as acceptable components of our native habitats. But such attitudes are dwindling as society becomes more educated about and accepting of the minor risks and major benefits that accrue to protecting all our native wildlife species.

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