by Whit Gibbons

August 17, 2008

One of my favorite seasons in the Southeast is late summer and fall. The probability that nonsweltering weather will punctuate more and more days during the week is enjoyed by almost everyone. My pleasure is enhanced because baby snakes and lizards are beginning to emerge. This may not be everyone's idea of a good time; in fact, I am absolutely positive it is not why most people appreciate autumn's arrival. But seeing the babies of three species of snakes that people have brought in to be identified has made this an exciting week for me.

A biological fact is that the numbers of most North American snakes are greater in late summer and fall than any other time of the year. And baby snakes are often more visible because they are moving around looking for their first meal. Snakes are important components of our natural environments, but because of fearful attitudes that still persist in our society, they need any good press they can get. Hence, I feel justified in writing once again about snakes.

Most U.S. snakes are born in August or September. Due to natural deaths, the actual numbers of every species will decrease each month from fall until this time next year. Baby snakes often make their debut on roads, in carports, or on patios as they search for their first meal. Because they are more active aboveground than usual, they are more likely to be seen. Some species, such as timber/canebrake rattlesnakes, mate in the fall. The big males are often seen crossing roads or wandering around in woods and fields searching for females.

Typical snake inquiries I receive are from people wanting to be assured that the snake in their yard is not one of the six venomous species native to the Southeast: coral snake, cottonmouth moccasin, copperhead, and three rattlesnake species, timber/canebrake, pygmy, and eastern diamondback. I am wary of identifying a snake based only on someone's verbal description, even though I may think I know what it is. Digital photography has been a boon in identifying snakes and other animals. An email with a brief description of location and habitat, accompanied by a photo of the snake itself is usually all that is required. If you want a snake identified, send a photo if you can.

Not all snakes are harmless. Clearly, some protect themselves with fangs and venom, and under certain circumstances people end up the victims. Among such species is the colorful but potentially deadly coral snake. J. D. Willson, a University of Georgia graduate student at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, caught a coral snake this week and brought it to the house so I could show the grandchildren what these rare and beautiful animals look like. Children need to know that some snakes can hurt you and that they should not pick up any snake unless they are with a knowledgeable adult who knows it is a harmless species. Snakes are not out to hurt or bother anyone--they just want to be left alone to find food, a mate, or a hiding place. Snakes never come looking for you.

Our natural environments, which include snakes, are priceless. Because of people's feelings toward 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 someone who is knowledgeable about and comfortable with snakes. The more you learn about the habitats and behavior of your native wildlife, such as snakes, the more you'll enjoy those late summer and autumn walks, even if it's just a stroll around your own backyard.

Some people will probably never learn to accept snakes as agreeable or even tolerable components of our native habitats. But such mind-sets are dwindling as society becomes more attuned to the minor risks and major benefits that accrue when we protect all of our native wildlife species.

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