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Into The Outdoors: A Creature Feature - Snakes

I have been thinking that it’s about time for a creature feature. Since there seems to be an abundance of them this year, let’s start things off with snakes. Of course, it would be impossible to cover all Pennsylvania snakes in a column of this size, so we will focus on a few of the more and better known.  

Perhaps the best known snake in these parts is the garter snake. Studies since 2000 have shown that they actually have venom, although it isn’t nearly enough to pose a threat to humans. These guys are often seen in yards, and occasionally have a tendency to try to get into houses. I once had a tiny one that I bought from a pet shop. I really enjoyed watching him eat nightcrawlers. Of course, he would swallow them whole. It should be noted that the garter snake can emit a really strong smelling substance if alarmed.

The little smooth green snake is another one often encountered in yards and flower beds. I will have to admit that I find them rather cute. Like the garter snake, they too secrete a foul smelling substance when alarmed. Beyond that, they are both harmless and beneficial.

Next up is the common brown water snake. As their name implies, they live near and in water. They are very common in and around rivers and creeks. They can grow to a rather large size.  Due to their coloration, they are often mistaken for the venomous copperhead. Over the years, old Bub and I have sometimes found them in our minnow traps.  They invade the traps to feed on the minnows, get stuck and drown. They are somewhat aggressive, and will bite. The bite will often draw blood. 

Although the aforementioned snakes are classified as “harmless,” they still pose a risk. A bite is highly prone to infection mainly due to the feeding habits of the reptiles.I have never been bitten by any of them, but if it happens, I would seek medical attention to head off infection.

Now, let’s look at the venomous snakes found in our state. Ever since I was a kid, I have spent an inestimable amount of time in the outdoors, including along creeks and the Allegheny River. I have even fished a creek called Rattlesnake Run, and hiked on Rattlesnake Road.  In all that time, I have only ever seen one poisonous snake.  We’ll look at that encounter shortly.

When poisonous snakes are mentioned, most of us immediately think of rattlesnakes. One of these found in Pennsylvania is the massasauga, also known as swamp rattler. These fairly small snakes are a highly endangered species and, due to their reclusive nature, are almost never seen. Their range in the state is very limited.

The timber rattlesnake is much more common. They are larger, and carry a more potent dose of venom that the swamp rattler. They are also more widespread in this state. Extreme caution should be exercised in areas where they are found. They don’t always rattle before striking, although it is a common belief that they do.

Last, but not least, we have the copperhead. Like the rattlesnakes, it is a pit viper. It’s bite is seldom fatal, except in those with heightened sensitivity to the venom. That said, it is still a serious matter. In my entire life, a copperhead is the only poisonous snake I have ever seen, and I have only ever seen one. That occurred when I was jogging along the Allegheny. It didn’t try to bite me, but it did coil up in a way I took to be a warning.

Sadly, the first thought that enters many people’s minds when they see any snake is to kill it. That is very unfortunate, as snakes, even the venomous ones, play a beneficial role, in that they dispose of a lot of pests. The best thing to do is to just leave them alone.


Chris Henderson email:

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