On a hike along the Blackwater Creek Trail this spring, I heard a rattling noise that made me jump.
A black rat snake along the side of the trail was vibrating his tail to imitate a rattlesnake. Apparently, I had scared him as much as he scared me.
Several species of snakes will rattle their tails to warn predators to stay away. I quickly skedaddled.
On a recent bike ride on Percival’s Island, a walker flagged us down to be sure we saw a black snake making his way across the trail. I appreciated his concern for the snake’s safety.
While humans seem innately afraid of snakes, they are an important part of the natural world and are especially good at controlling rodent populations. A single mouse can produce 50 offspring per year; something needs to eat them.
A medium-sized black snake can eat nine pounds of rodents a year, or nearly 200 mice.
Unfortunately, people often kill snakes on sight, not taking time to distinguish venomous snakes from benign ones. It’s best to leave them alone altogether.
Snakes rarely bother people, though any snake will bite if provoked. Around here, copperheads and rattlesnakes are the only venomous species.
In Virginia, only three of our 30 native species are venomous, with the cottonmouth being the third. It is found only in the southeastern corner of the state.
Snakes are busy now; they primarily mate in May and June. As cold-blooded reptiles, snakes need heat from an external source and often lie on rocks or pavement to soak up the sun’s rays.
This time of year you have to watch out for snakes, whether hiking, doing yard work or driving.
Most babies emerge in the fall. There are three main types of snake reproduction. About 75% are oviparous, or egg layers. The eggs must be incubated until the babies are ready to emerge from the shell. Rat snakes and racers are both in this category.
Viviparous snakes lack eggs. They nourish their developing young through a placenta and yolk sac, a highly unusual process among reptiles. Boa constrictors and green anacondas are two examples.
Ovoviviparous snakes give birth to live young; however, they start out in eggs in the female’s body. The female retains the eggs inside of her until the baby snakes emerge fully active with no shell. Rattlesnakes and garter snakes are ovoviviparous.
In some species, competition for a female can be fierce. Garter snakes, for example, will form balls of up to 25 male snakes vying for the same female’s “affection.”
Of Virginia’s three venomous snakes, copperheads have the least potency. Bites from a venomous snake need medical attention, but getting bitten is rarely a death sentence.
Nationwide, about five people per year die from snakebites.
If you are bitten, you should stay calm and seek medical help quickly. Unlike the advice given in westerns, you should not cut the wound or attempt to suck out the venom.
Like nearly all creatures on the planet, snakes are facing decline and need our help, not our disdain.
Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.