The Skinny on Snakes

It’s summer. It’s hot. And there is a lot of low, lush, green ground-cover that’s perfect for hiding. (Think of a fern bed on a flood plain.) In other words, it’s snake season.

In the mountains where I live (north central Georgia), only two species of venomous snakes make their home: timber rattlers and copperheads. Throughout my teaching career, wherever I have held classes for youth and adult, I have carried out a displacement plan to try to minimize the chances for my students having an encounter with one of these reptiles. This means that there have been hundreds of occasions in which I have captured these pit vipers, transported them to a more remote place, and released them unharmed. At worst (for the snake), this might mean that the creature has to spend a few hours in a large, capped bucket until class is over and I can free it in a new location away from people.

All this is to say, I have handled a lot of snakes – both venomous and not. So, I believe, this gives me enough familiarity with snakes’ behavior in the wild to say a few authentic things about these much misunderstood creatures.

I am, of course, aware that many people have difficulty in appreciating any kind of snake . . . much less one that carries its own “poison.” I am equally aware that most people cannot differentiate one snake species from another. Whenever I am called upon to positively ID a dead “copperhead” or “water moccasin” or “rattlesnake” that a neighbor has killed, I find the majority of those corpses belonged to harmless water snakes, king snakes, or racers. Rattlers should be difficult to misidentify because of their rattles, but a number of snakes purposefully vibrate their tails in dry leaves for a pretty convincing facsimile.

It has been my observation that our two pit-vipers – copperheads and rattlers – are two of the most laid-back, sluggish, and non-aggressive species in our woods. The only exception to that would be during mating times, which can occur in spring or fall. I have stood next to two copperheads in the throes of reptilian passion. They were jittery, quick, and seemingly – for the male, at least – more than half-crazy over the anticipation of coupling. These two snakes flopped and chased and wriggled all over the ground around me as if I were not there.

Outside a mating scenario, the story is much different. On several different occasions I have seen people walk right over a venomous snake and never see it. More importantly, the snake remained absolutely still and showed no interest in biting an animal so large. Yet I have no doubt that people have been bitten as a consequence of simply stepping over a log. In such a case, it would be very tempting to say that the snake ambushed a human.

In fact, Emergency Room doctors have shared with me their stories of treating snakebite victims. So often the patients declare that the snake was the aggressor. “It came right after me!” “I was just minding my own business!” Toward the end of the hospital visit, so the doctors say, the patients often capitulate and admit: “Well, maybe I was poking a stick at it a little.”

But what about that person who committed no other sin than walking too close? Well, it’s all a matter of interpretation. Picture a rattlesnake coiled up under the curve of a dead log on a trail. The snake’s reason for being there is shade. When it cools off too much, it moves into sunlight. This is how it regulates its body heat; because, unlike our bodies, snakes have no system in place for producing internal heat.

Let’s pick up the story when our hypothetical rattler is cooling off under the log, minding its own business, practicing patience without even knowing what patience is. Then the snake feels a regular footfall in the distance. (Snakes can’t hear. They have no ears. But they can easily pick up ground vibrations.) The interloper approaches. Not good. The snake already knows the name of this trespasser by his walking rhythm and foot-to-earth weight. It is the dreaded Homo sapiens.

We often hear about the flight or fight option among wild creatures, but there is another option – a third “F” – probably more common: freezing. By remaining still, most wild animals melt into anonymity among their surroundings. But that doesn’t mean their nerves don’t get on edge. If this “frozen” rattler feels those feet coming directly toward it, what follows could be a harrowing wait.

Then the invader is practically on top of the reptile. All alerts are on. There might even be a sense of fear. And why not? I find it hard to believe that humans are not universally recognized by wildlife as the ultimate killer.
Then comes the big thud! A foot comes down from over the log. That foot does not touch the nicely hidden snake, but it has blocked the path of escape. The snake is cornered for an instant, and in that split second the snake has to make a decision.

If I were a snake, I believe, I might opt for a pro-active measure. Better to be s-s-safe than s-s-sorry. That sibilant adage might very well be a slogan among our slithery friends.

There are always two sides to any story. I would guess that most folks are not willing to stretch their imagination in favor of the snake. Especially one that has just bitten someone. But still, that other interpretation is no less real. Perhaps our biases get the best of us.

The closest call I ever experienced involved a copperhead moving quickly across a flat piece of ground right toward me. When it struck at me the snake was less than two feet away from my leg. Employing a little, sideways, shuffling slide that I may have picked up from contra-dancing, I evaded a bite. Wait! Was I attacked?

Now for the real story:
After a survival skills workshop had ended, I went to my supply shed to put away some of my teaching tools. Folded on the ground was a tarp that I needed to cover firewood from a coming rain. Always on the alert for venomous vipers, I carefully picked up one corner of the tarp to check. Nothing was underneath. So I started walking away with the tarp, dragging it (still folded) behind me.

Two steps into my walk toward the wood pile, I swung the tarp forward to better grip it with both hands. Out from the folds of the plastic slipped a coiled copperhead, scooting across the ground like a hockey puck from the jerk I had made. It slid right for me in this coiled position.

A moment ago this snake had been sequestered inside a snug tarp as it whiled away the day. In the next moment it was skittering along the earth at surprising speed. When it was close enough, it converted that sliding momentum into a strike that seemed to reach beyond the normal range for a strike. The snake made its lunge. I performed a quick sashay. All was good for me. The snake, I am sure, felt completely interrupted, exposed, and annoyed.

Into the bucket. Into my truck. And off we went to a place that will probably someday be renamed “Viper Valley.”

Do unprovoked snakes really ever come after a person? I have been told by many folks that they do. One fisherman I knew told me of a water moccasin that waited for him in the branch of a shrub. When his johnboat came under the shrub, the snake dropped inside. Ambush! When the panicked fisherman grabbed a paddle to do battle with the reptile, the cottonmouth came for him.

I must point out here that there is a difference between aggression and aggressive defense. Again, all you have to do is see that other side of the story. Perhaps, this was a heroic snake. The ophidian Odysseus of snake-dom. Once it was trapped inside the gunnels of a boat as it faced the ultimate predator, its warrior-like response might be seen as commendable by some.

But before all that, it is almost certain that the snake was minding its own business and perched in the best place for a quick escape. If a threat arose, what could be more liberating than to drop into water and swim away? In this case, it is easy to imagine what really did happen. The aluminum boat scraped against the bush, initiating a vibration. The snake dropped. Thud! Not what he expected. Uh oh, that’s a human with a big stick.

There are always two sides.

In “Secrets of the Forest Volume 3,” one beautifully photographed chapter is devoted to snakes of the Southeast. This includes an in-depth probe into the physiology and psychology of the human/reptile equation.
Secrets of the Forest (Volume 3) Eye to Eye With the Animals of the Wild, and At Play in the Wild by Mark Warren
Check out all of the “Secrets of the Forest” books at










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