by Whit Gibbons

April 9, 2017

Snake season is upon us, and the following are recent queries, some of which I get every year.

Q: Snakes seem to be more abundant in suburban areas around Birmingham than they were when I was growing up. Is that true?

A: The answer lies in perception more than reality. Some snakes probably have become slightly more abundant in suburban neighborhoods than they were when the areas were natural woodlands simply because they can thrive under current conditions. For example, ratsnakes can find more to eat in the form of rodents and small birds, both of which can be abundant in suburban areas. Also, shrubs and trees in many suburban areas have grown substantially since they were first planted, so more suitable habitat is available for snakes and other wildlife.

But our perception of snake abundance has also changed significantly. Social media and the availability of instant photography with cell phones has allowed people to be informed of any snake sighting in the neighborhood. So, 30 years ago when someone found a ratsnake in their backyard, you might hear about it at next week’s bridge club, whereas today you hear about it immediately on Facebook or Instagram from neighbors you hardly know.

Q: What kinds of snakes are most common in big cities? I know at least some are present because people find garter snakes and ring-necked snakes in their gardens.

A: Last year I interviewed professional herpetologists about the most common snakes found in the 25 largest cities in the eastern United States. Each of them had received requests to identify snakes in urban areas and had kept records throughout the year. The common gartersnake was the most prevalent species, being frequently reported in 24 metropolitan areas from Boston to Chicago to Atlanta to Miami. The second most common species was the brownsnake, formerly called DeKay’s brown snake, a small species that can be found in vacant lots, backyards and home gardens in most southeastern towns and cities.

Watersnakes (northern or southern banded), racers and ratsnakes were commonly reported residents in more than half of the large cities despite all being relatively large snakes. Ring-necked snakes were reported as among the most common snake species in 10 of the cities. Fortunately, venomous snakes were not reported as prevalent in most cities. Notable exceptions were coral snakes in Florida (Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa) and copperheads in Atlanta.

Q: I live north of Atlanta, and we have copperheads in the neighborhood. Would a kingsnake residing in the area kill them?

A: Eastern kingsnakes, which would be native to that area, are immune to the venom of pit vipers (copperheads, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes) and have been documented to eat them. If the kingsnake encounters a pit viper in the wild that is small enough for it to eat, the kingsnake will bite it, kill it by constriction and then swallow it whole. When kingsnakes and copperheads are found in the same area, the former probably reduce the numbers of the latter. However, migrant pit vipers can wander into an area and go a long time without encountering a kingsnake that will eat them.

Q: It is really confusing when the same snake can have different appearances. Based on a book I have about snakes, even the same kind can come in different colors. Is there a surefire way to tell whether a snake is harmless so I can safely pick it up?

A: As with other groups of animals and plants, many species look similar and simply require learning how to differentiate between them. Butterflies, oak trees and treefrogs have many lookalikes, but the cost for picking up the wrong snake can be very high. A primary rule regarding snakes that cannot be overstated is you should look but not touch unless you know what you are doing. A good way to learn about snakes is with regional field guides.

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