This week, we are going to take a look at some Pennsylvania snakes. Until I researched for this column, I never realized just how many different kinds of snakes there are in the old Keystone State. It would be impossible to cover them all in this space, so we’ll stick to some of the better known and/or rare ones.
We might as well start with our venemous snakes, of which there are few. The most impressive would probably be the timber rattlesnake. This area is not really in their range, but they are the object of rattlesnake hunts in some parts of the state. I believe that they are sometimes confused with the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the biggest of the species. My research, however, revealed that Pennsylvania is not included in their range, although that does not totally eliminate the possibility of encountering one. They can, of course, escape from enclosures, and someone might release a pet that they no longer want.
Next up is the massasauga, also known as the swamp rattler. These are a rare and endangered species, unlikely to be encountered.
Probably the best known of our venomous snakes is the copperhead. These are indeed found in our area. Their bite is seldom fatal to humans, although I did read a story of a person, a couple of years ago, dying from one. It should be noted, however, that the individual had an extreme sensitivity to the venom. I have spent a lifetime playing, hiking, bicycling, walking and jogging along the Allegheny River. In all of that time, I have seen only one copperhead. In fact, that is the only poisonous snake I have ever seen in the wild. I stopped to look at it. It did not strike at me, although it did assume the strike position. In the end, we both went on our merry way.
As for the nonpoisonous varieties, let’s start with the plain old watersnake. Make no mistake about it. These guys are mean! They will bite you in a second. Although the bite is not venomous, it hurts, and is prone to infection. These snakes are often seen on land, despite their name. They can stay underwater for a long time. They feed mainly on small fish and other small aquatic creatures. Due to their markings, they are often mistaken for copperheads. The shape of the head is the distinguishing factor between the two. On more than one occasion, Old Bub and I have retrieved minnow traps, only to find a dead watersnake stuffed with minnows.
Garter snakes are among our most common harmless snakes. Their main food is insects, including some notorious pests. I once had a tiny pet one that I got at a pet shop. It was incredible watching it swallow whole nightcrawlers. Sadly, it escaped from its enclosure, only to be immediately dispatched by the cat.
I am sure that we have all seen blacksnakes many times. I am going to just group all snakes that are black into this category. They can grow to a very large size. They are extremely beneficial, as their favorite diet consists of mice and rats. They can get a bit nasty if cornered, but they are really nothing to worry about.
Perhaps the strangest of all Pennsylvania snakes is the worm snake. Look at the photo below and you will understand how it got its name.