by Whit Gibbons

September 28, 2014

Most people appreciate autumn’s cooler temperatures and fall colors. I personally like fall because snakes are much in evidence. North American snakes actually occur in greater numbers in the fall than any other time of the year and often are more visible because vegetation cover is reduced.

So, because I like snakes, autumn is here, and people are more likely to see snakes, I feel justified in writing once again about these often reviled but quite 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 decrease each month from autumn of one year to the next. Baby snakes often make their debut around houses as they search for their first meal before cold weather arrives.

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. Some species, such as canebrake and timber rattlesnakes, mate in the fall and can often be seen crossing roads.

I receive many reports of autumn snake sightings. 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. An 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 as the victims. So, yes, some snakes can hurt you. But so can some dogs.

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 ever come looking for you.

Our natural environments, which include snakes, are priceless. Because of people’s fascination with and fear of these sinuous reptiles, snakes serve as a barometer of the public’s mindset toward wildlife and natural habitats.

Attitudes about snakes are one measure of the extent and effectiveness 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 acknowledge snakes as an acceptable component of our natural habitats.

But such narrow-mindedness is dwindling as society becomes more educated about all our native wildlife species and more accepting of the minor risks and major benefits that accrue to protecting them and their habitats.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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