by Whit Gibbons

March 15, 2015

Two things related to March bring snakes to mind. The first is St. Patrick's Day, March 17. The saint is credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland. The fact that snakes have never lived on that cold island in no way discourages people from making a connection between St. Patrick and snakes.

Another occasion during March is the spring equinox, which occurs around the end of the third week. Days get progressively longer than nights, and both get warmer. Spring officially arrives.

Most plants and animals, including snakes, respond to these changes. All U.S. snakes become more active and more evident, hence a word on behalf of this fascinating yet bullied wildlife is timely and always warranted.

Many people today have an awareness and concern about the welfare of natural environments and wildlife, even snakes, and their right to exist in the natural world. Snakes serve as a barometer of environmental attitudes of people in a region. An ecologically educated community accepts native snakes as an integral component of natural environments.

U.S. snakes are highly overrated as a threat to humans. Of the more than 50 native snake species in the East, only seven are venomous. Bites of three pit vipers (copperhead, pygmy rattler of the South, and massasauga, a small rattlesnake found in the Midwest) are rarely lethal to humans. Three larger pit vipers are also found east of the Mississippi River.

The largest venomous snake in North America, and the one with the most potent venom in the East, is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which can reach a length of over seven feet. Next in size, often over five feet, is the timber rattler, also called canebrake rattler. More than 40 other eastern species of snakes are nonvenomous and harmless. Some of them will not even bite when picked up.

The cottonmouth is by far the most common venomous U.S. snake that lives around water. The bite of a cottonmouth can be bad, but the snake's aggressiveness is way overrated. Studies have shown that a high proportion of bites from this species occur when people pick the snake up. Yes, pick the snake up!

OK, think about the cause and effect in that scenario then see if you can figure out a way to reduce your odds of getting bitten by a cottonmouth. Also, most snakes people see around water are nonvenomous watersnakes whose first response upon seeing a person is to escape.

The copperhead is the venomous snake most likely to bite someone who is unaware of the snake's presence. But consider this fact: Copperheads bite more people every year than any other U.S. snake, yet human deaths from the bite are exceedingly rare and all have occurred under unusual circumstances.

Copperhead venom is less potent than that of most other venomous snakes, and a bite usually causes minimal damage to the victim. A trip to the hospital or doctor's office is still advisable if you do get bitten.

The coral snake is a venomous species that is entirely different from the six pit vipers. A cobra relative, an eastern coral snake can indeed kill an adult human if enough venom is injected. But these multicolored snakes are rarely seen and are unlikely to bite a person unless picked up.

If anyone has ever received an accidental bite from an unseen coral snake, it was truly a rare event. Perhaps the greatest danger is to children who might pick up a brightly colored red, yellow, and black snake.

Children should be taught never to pick up any snake without supervision by a knowledgeable adult. But they, as well as adults, should learn to enjoy snakes by watching them. It's more fascinating and a lot safer than trying to kill them.

In any case, snakes will be around one way or another from the spring equinox until the winter solstice, and St. Patrick isn't around to do anything about it.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)


SREL HomeUGA Home SREL Home UGA Home