Creeped Out: At Home with Snakes in Crozet

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Will Byrd, touching the slithery tongue of a black ratsnake, one of his many snake friends in Crozet. Photo: Randolph Byrd.

Snakes are the villains of our stories. From Nagini in Harry Potter and the vengeful vipers of Aesop’s Fables to the Bible’s serpent in the garden, snakes are accursed, reviled. To call someone “a snake” is to say they are deceitful, slippery, toxic. Though we observe many varieties of wildlife from a distance in Crozet, snakes are very close, slinking through our gardens, garages, and crawl spaces, and they give us the willies.

Snakes unnerve us from an early age. U.Va. researchers found in a 2008 study that humans as young as toddlers have an innate ability to detect and fear snakes. Art, mythology, and popular culture reinforce the creep factor, and a 2018 YouGov poll found that 66 percent of adults are afraid of snakes; it’s their top fear, ahead of heights, public speaking, and being enclosed in a small space. 

A big part of the repulsion is driven by snakes’ alien look. “Those reptilian characteristics—the scales and unblinking eyes, no legs or wings, the slithering movement—it can be difficult for people to view those creatures with the same affection and respect as the cute, fuzzy raccoon, bear cub, or fox,” said Alex Wehrung, outreach coordinator at the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro. Combined with a persistent overestimation of their threat to humans, the strangeness of snakes allows people to be cavalier about killing them, often with a shovel blade to the neck.

Eastern copperhead. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

Why do they like to be near us? As with other adaptable wildlife from coyotes to foxes, snakes take advantage of nearby human habitation as a source of easy meals. High on their list of favorites are rodents and bird’s eggs, so they are attracted to the mice living in and around structures, as well as to unprotected bird nesting boxes and—best of all—chicken coops. As they are cold-blooded, they like the warm spots and protected spaces near homes to rest and hide their eggs and young.

Despite the occasional nuisance, Wehrung says that snakes’ positive features should weigh more prominently in humans’ view of the creatures. “Aside from people just not wanting to be near snakes, I can’t think of many negative elements to having one in your area,” he said. “More snakes lead to lower rodent populations, which means that potential disease transmission to humans is lower—such as from ticks which hitch a ride on rats and mice. Controlling the prey species population as they do is incredibly helpful.”

Snake in the Grass

There are 30 or so species of snakes in Virginia and only three are venomous—the copperhead, cottonmouth, and timber rattlesnake, all of which are members of the “pit viper” family. While cottonmouths reside only in far southeastern Virginia and timber rattlers are found mostly in the mountains, Crozet residents are more likely to encounter copperheads, who enjoy hanging out in woodpiles, tall grass, and forest leaf piles, and sunning themselves on warm rocks. 

Eastern copperhead. Photo: North Carolina Museum of Biological Sciences.

“Copperheads and rattlesnakes are ‘ambush predators,’” said Wehrung. “Their camouflage is so perfect that you can’t see them among brown leaves or against tree bark, and they just sit and wait.” Snakes have closed ear cavities so they rest with their chins on the ground to feel the vibrations of an approaching animal or human. The harrowing idea of an “ambush” aside, Wehrung says the risk from a snake strike is low.

“Our venomous snakes are actually not very dangerous to the average person,” said Wehrung. “It’s pretty rare for a healthy adult human to die from a snake bite.” How rare, exactly? About 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year and only five or six die from the bite. An American is nine times more likely to die from a lightning strike than a snake bite. 

Snakes can modulate how much venom they inject, depending on their intent. It’s estimated that 20-25% of all pit viper bites are “dry bites”—no venom injected—meant merely as a form of warning or defense. When serious, however, a rattlesnake can inject up to four times more venom than a copperhead.

Timber rattlesnake outside the home of Doug Henley. Photo: Doug Henley.

Though wildlife specialists have no trouble identifying snakes by their markings and other features, making a quick ID amid the panic of spotting something slithering underfoot is tricky for the average person. Venomous snakes generally have triangular(-ish) shaped heads, upturned snouts, and vertical (instead of round) pupils, but there may be little opportunity to gaze upon a snake’s face long enough to make the call. Most snakes strike at an astonishing speed—they can hit a target at a distance half their body length away in a quarter of the time it takes a human to blink.

Rattlesnakes have thicker bodies than copperheads and, of course, that unique tail rattle, and their inch-wide brown stripes look like chevrons in an M or V pattern. Copperheads are coppery or lighter tan in color, with brownish, hourglass-shaped bands centered on their spine and wrapped around each side like a saddle. However, markings and coloration can vary between juvenile and adult snakes of the same species, and a northern watersnake, juvenile black racer, or hog-nosed snake can easily be mistaken for a copperhead among the uninitiated. 

Snake Charmer

Steve Colvin, of Colvin’s Animal Damage Control, understands snake aversion. “I get two or three calls a day right now about snakes,” he said. “People are so deathly afraid of them, in a lot of cases more so than they need to be, but that phobia has been there since the beginning of time. We get calls from people saying, ‘I’m outside my house and I’m not going in until you get here!’ and we get there and it’s a four-inch ring snake.” Still, he says, better safe than sorry.

Alex Wehrung, Outreach Coordinator at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Colvin and his crew track down snakes in basements, attics, and outbuildings. “They find natural travel ways along wiring and plumbing lines and along concrete ledges in basements,” he said. “They’ve got a flexible bone structure so they can flatten out like a piece of paper and slip right in, it’s unbelievable the gaps I’ve seen snakes get into.” Snakes like warm spots such as under refrigerators or near computer equipment. If snakeskins are present, those are useful clues for Colvin, but it’s even better if the homeowner can keep an eye on the snake until he arrives. 

He sometimes catches snakes on glue boards and then applies oil to remove them. “It’s illegal to relocate them so I’ll take black snakes and garter snakes to a nearby farmer who has a hay shed or somebody who needs them.” Colvin says he removes between 20 and 30 copperheads a year (and those he kills), but he’s had only four rattlesnake calls in the last decade. He says the largest headache regarding snakes, paradoxically, comes from people.

Northern ringneck snake. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

“The biggest problem we run into is that everybody thinks all snakes are copperheads,” he said. “I would say that 95% are misidentified—it’s actually a garter snake, a watersnake, even a ribbon or ratsnake. I would encourage everybody to take a look at some photos online.” When the problem really is a copperhead, he tells his staff “no selfies on this job.”

“Snakes are one of the most dangerous things we deal with,” he said. “We say: Copperheads won’t kill you; they’ll make you wish you were dead. Rattlesnakes will kill you, but they’re better about warning you.”

While many Crozet residents run screaming from snakes, others view them as borderline companionable. Six-year-old Will Byrd has named the black ratsnakes that peek out of crevices in the rock wall near Old Trail’s community garden. “We know Sunny and Pokey and Rainy and Tree and Shady in there,” said Will, who can identify snake varieties and knows their habits. “I’m not afraid of snakes because they’re our friends. The only ones that are not my friends are copperheads and rattlesnakes.”

Eastern ratsnake, nicknamed Shady, who lives in the rock wall near the Old Trail community garden. Photo: Randolph Byrd.

Will proved his acumen recently when he came upon a baby copperhead under a bush as he was hiding painted rocks for his Grandma to find. “I knew it was a copperhead because of its pointy head,” he said. “The rule is, stay away from them and warn your parents, so that’s what I did.” Will is on friendlier terms with the black ratsnakes and sometimes gets a chance to stroke them. “Black snakes don’t have venom, but they do have sharp lips.”

Common non-venomous snakes in our area include the ratsnake and black racer, which look very similar, garter snake (the official state snake of Virginia), watersnake, ringneck snake, and ribbon snake. All of these are rated by the Virginia Herpetological Society as “harmless,” though they can bite with tiny rows of teeth that may leave a mark. “We encourage people if they just have a couple of black snakes outside in their yard, just leave them be—they are better to have around than other kinds,” said Colvin.

Friend or Foe

In early May, Doug Henley was reaching for a piece of lumber on the ground outside his home near Chiles Orchard when he spied a bulky timber rattlesnake coiled a few inches away. “I almost stepped on him, scared the fire out of me,” said Henley. After scrambling to get his dog in the house, he took a moment to admire the snake as he encouraged it to move along off the property. “He was beautiful,” he said. “He had just shed and was all bright colors, probably one of the bigger ones I’ve seen.”

Common ribbonsnake. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

Henley is no stranger to the species. “I was raised by my grandparents in White Hall and my grandfather hunted rattlesnakes for 25 years or so—I actually started hunting them when I was probably about four years old,” he said. “A lot of people wanted the skins, or the meat to eat, and we would keep the rattles. I inherited my grandfather’s collection and it’s almost 300 sets, all different sizes.” Each time a rattlesnake sheds (every year or so) it adds a new rattle, so a quick count can roughly reveal its age.

Juvenile eastern ratsnake. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society.

Why didn’t Henley kill the rattler, a dangerous critter so close to his home? “A rattlesnake would rather run away than stand and fight,” he said. “They’re not aggressive, not even when I ticked this one off by getting close.” But another thought gave him pause as well. “We saw one of these a year ago when we were building this house, and then this one now a year later, and it’s kind of funny but not funny—I told my wife I felt like it was my grandfather coming back to see us. That’s why I did not kill him.”

Copperheads, though, are a different story. “Copperheads will stand and fight and just keep on fighting,” said Henley. “They are just nasty, they really are, and I’ll kill every one of those I can find.” While copperheads inject less venom than rattlesnakes, they are more prone to strike and vastly more prevalent in Crozet, and they spark a sharp loathing among many locals.

Eastern gartersnakes in Crozet. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Joey Strickler of Sugar Hollow agrees with Henley about the meanness of copperheads, especially after losing three dogs to their bites. “A copperhead will strike at you even if you are passing by and don’t see them,” he said. His dogs were small and inquisitive, and very unlucky. “One was sniffing around a rose bush and the snake nailed him right on the nose. He squealed and ran to my mother, and he dropped dead at her feet.” Another time, one of the dogs poked his nose into the corner of a pool out-building and received the same fate. “They were both gone in less than a minute.”

Strickler fought back by creating snake-unfriendly landscaping. “Grass, grass, and more grass” was the key, he said. “We replaced all the mulched areas with grass, surrounded all the dog areas with borders of sharp pea gravel, and removed all lumber, logs and anything close to the house that snakes could hide under. We also welcome as many black snakes as we can. It is true that they help keep venomous snakes away. Since that overhaul, we have not seen anywhere close to the number of copperheads as we had in the past.”

Myth vs. Fact

Though many people believe otherwise, the bite of a baby snake is usually less serious than that of an adult. Babies can control the amount of venom injected just as adults can, and they have less of it to begin with, though they may rashly choose to unload it all when frightened. The sight of a baby snake does not necessarily mean its family is close by, as parents of newborns usually leave them to their own devices. Mothballs (and most other commercial deterrents) rarely work to ward snakes off, and rattlesnakes don’t rattle if they don’t hear you coming (so tread heavily).

Northern watersnake. Photo: Virginia Herpetological Society

A few lingering myths surround what to do if bitten by a snake. The experts advise NOT to put a tourniquet on the wound, or ice it, or lance it, or try to suck out the venom. It’s important to remove any rings or jewelry in case of swelling. Wash the wound with soap and water and get to a health care facility if possible. Snake venom destroys blood vessels and other tissue, so symptoms such as nausea and dizziness may also occur. There is an anti-venom medication for pit viper bites, and you don’t have to know what kind of snake bit you to be treated. In all cases, stay calm—snake bites are eminently treatable.

As with all rural human/animal interactions, wildlife professionals hope that people and snakes can coexist peacefully. “Snakes are so unique and have so much intrinsic value,” said Wehrung. “They’re in the middle of the food chain—while they eat birds and rodents and control pest populations, they are eaten by hawks and eagles, opossums, foxes, and skunks. The biodiversity of reptiles like snakes is a good indicator of ecosystem health and water quality, as well.”

Wehrung urges adults to try to be better role models for children when it comes to being open-minded about snakes. “When I bring snakes out for education programs, some adults go kind of pale and leave the room, and that’s not an ideal message to give to kids,” he said. “If I could encourage anything, I would think we should try to inspire a sense of wonder about snakes, or at least an admiration for the unknown.” 

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