Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Snakes and Lizards of Virginia

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The faces of three young Northern Copperheads (born just a few weeks earlier) can be seen at the opening of the “maternity” den underneath the author’s carport. The bright greenish yellow tail tip of one of the snakelets is visible to the right of the Field Cricket that seemed to know it had nothing to fear from the little snakes.

The very first snake I saw in my yard after I’d moved in more than three decades ago was a Red Cornsnake. I was thrilled to spot such an absolutely beautiful serpent, especially because it sported a fair bit of my favorite color—red!

For the most part, snakes prefer to stay out of sight, and if they tend to be active at night, your chances of seeing one are not really very high. In my experience, only the Eastern Rat Snake seems unafraid to show itself in the open in broad daylight.

It seems to know that most people are willing to coexist with it, something that other snake species are not often lucky enough to experience. And yet, snakes are hardly the threat to humans that folklore makes them out to be.

For years I have pointed out to people attending my talks that dogs, horses, and even lightning strikes kill many more people every year than venomous snakes do. And, of course, traffic fatalities hugely outnumber deaths from snake bites. Even so, most people would rather get into their vehicle every day than allow a snake to live in close proximity, despite the fact that people are far more likely to get killed on the road than they are ever to be hurt by a snake.

I believe the best way to overcome a fear of snakes is to learn about them. We have only 32 species, and, if you so desire, you need only learn about the lives of the ones that live in your particular area. You can determine this information from the map accompanying each species account in a wonderful guide to the snakes and the lizards of Virginia that has been published by the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries.

The small book is loaded with photos, and in addition to the usual information on habitat and behavior, each account includes a “Did you know?” section. For example, on the Red Corn Snake page, you find that the corn snake may have gotten its name from its habit of hunting rodents around corn fields. I prefer the second answer, which suggests the name could have come from this snake’s belly pattern, which looks like Indian Corn!

It might surprise you to see how many species of colorful snakes we have in Virginia, some of which are quite striking. However, there can be a lot of variation among individuals within a species, such as the Northern Copperhead. Some of these animals are a gorgeous coppery color, while others are a rather bland gray.

Longtime readers of my column may remember that female copperheads sometimes reproduce underneath my carport. You might think this situation would present a big problem, but it simply requires that we pay a bit more attention when walking around the carport during the month or so that the female is around. (There is usually only one female, although one year we had three!)

I’ve learned a great deal about copperheads as a result of inadvertently supplying a maternity ward for them, such as that people can coexist with these snakes. Although one or more females have each given birth to 7-9 young underneath my carport many times, we rarely see these animals around the house other than during their birthing season. Most snakes try to avoid people.

However, since we know they live in the area, we always watch where we step and where we place our hands. Living in agreement with nature means taking precautions, but this is no different than being careful around your fellow human beings. I’ve been able to avoid being bitten by any kind of snake, but I haven’t been able to avoid careless drivers who have plowed into my car, one of whom put me into the hospital and caused me many years of lingering pain.

There is no need to deliberately run over snakes on the roadways, or to chop their heads off if you come across one on the ground. In fact, most people get bitten because they interact with the snake instead of just keeping their distance.  

Learning about the lizards of Virginia is a bit more difficult task than learning about our snakes. A lizard usually makes a brief appearance, quickly running off to hide or to look for a meal of spiders or insects.  

Amazingly, the lizard species (and many other different kinds of animals) living on my property can often be seen lounging around the same carport opening where the female copperheads hang out when waiting to give birth! We’ve spotted broad-headed and five-lined skinks as well as fence lizards in that area.

The funny thing about this is that there are not a lot of spiders or insects to be seen there, and usually when you notice animals again and again in an area, it suggests a nearby food source. However, I suspect these lizards—being cold-blooded—are taking advantage of the warmth of the concrete and nearby bricks at that corner of the carport. The sun hits that area early on summer days, and the lizards (and, in season, a copperhead) show up only after the area has been hit by photons for a while.

Although the DGIF book does not mention it in the Fence Lizard account, these particular reptiles are quite appropriately named as they can often be seen on a fence! There are still a few sections left of an old farm fence that once ran along the front of my property, and I have found this fencing to be a reliable location for spotting a Fence Lizard.

It always brings me great joy and satisfaction to see one there because I know that most people would have long ago gotten rid of that decrepit fence.  I did not, and it has afforded me more views of Fence Lizards than I ever would have experienced otherwise, making it a valuable component of The Nature-friendly Garden.

A Guide to the Snakes and Lizards of Virginia is a good book to own if you want to recognize and learn about these animals. It is available from the DGIF Store (www.shopdgif.com). It is truly a bargain for $10!  

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