By Don Corrigan
Residents in the Times reading area are no strangers to snakes. Forested properties near local homes mean the vipers can be as close as your fire pit wood pile or a rock border on your garden.
Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood gets phone calls, emails and even photos of snakes found at residential homes. Residents want to know if the creature they took a selfie with is venomous.
The two most common venomous snakes in our area are copperheads and timber rattle snakes, according to Erin Shank, urban wildlife biologist at the conservation center. Visitors to Powder Valley can see these two poisonous snakes in captivity.
“Most photos sent to us are actually harmless black rat snakes and hognose snakes,” said Shank. “The black rat snakes do get up to six feet long and make people uncomfortable.
“The hognose snakes can be mistaken for rattle snakes, because they can act like rattle snakes as a defensive mechanism,” Shank explained. “They will flatten their heads and look like they are going to strike.
“They look dangerous, but they’re not,” Shank emphasized.
Hognose snakes dine on rodents and lizards. Their distinguishing characteristic is an upturned snout that’s useful for digging in sandy soils.
Black rat snakes eat small rodents, such as mice, rats, moles and chipmunks. They kill their prey by constriction. The snake coils its length around its prey and holds on until the prey suffocates.
“Snakes eat a lot of pests,” said Shank. “They are vastly under-appreciated and they just want to be left alone. Even venomous snakes are timid and will retreat, if you don’t startle or corner them.”
Snakes Are Protected
Shank wants you to know that snakes are protected animals. It’s only legal to kill a venomous snake if you are threatened by it, or if it is in your home and there is no way to remove it.
“I get upset when I hear someone has chopped a snake’s head off in the backyard,” added Shank. “There are better ways to deal with them. Snakes want to get away from you as much as you want to get away from them.
“Snakes are not going to overrun your neighborhood,” said Shank. “Most snakes do not reproduce every year and they have high rates of mortality in populated areas.”
Dan Zarlenga, metro media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said there are precautions residents can take to avoid an encounter with a snake, venomous or otherwise.
“Where we see the biggest problems are in woodpiles for the fireplace or fire pits. Snakes love to hide in these,” said Zarlenga. “Keep the woodpile away from the house and always wear heavy gloves when reaching in for wood.
“Snakes also love rocks and flat stones used in gardens and for outdoor borders around the house,” added Zarlenga. “It’s best to keep the rocks away from the house.”
Zarlenga said if snakes are getting into your garage or basement, it could mean you have a mice or other rodent infestation. Snakes don’t want to live with you, but they will gladly come over for dinner.
“We are interested in being contacted at Powder Valley with reports about snakes and especially copperheads,” said Zarlenga. “But we are not able to come over and take them away. That’s a pest or animal control issue.”
Capt. Kirk Copperhead
One reason that Powder Valley is interested in snake reports is because of an ongoing study at the site on copperhead behavior. The study’s mission is to learn how the snakes live in populated areas.
With the aid of St. Louis Zoo veterinarians, snake investigators are learning how the reptiles live on the conservation center grounds and beyond. They have even implanted tiny transmitters in the snakes to follow their travels.
Investigators Ben Jellen, Brittany Neier and Jeff Briggler named the first snake in the study Captain Kirk, a nod to the Kirkwood area and the famous “Star Trek” adventurer.
Capt. Kirk, Copperhead First Class, lived and traveled much longer and farther than all the other copperheads in the study. Alas, Capt. Kirk was devoured by a hawk after three years of transmitting signals.
“One of the takeaways from the study, thus far, is that the mortality rate for snakes is high in urban areas,” said Zarlenga. “About 50 percent do not live past their first year, because of foxes, coyotes, hawks, owls – and cars.”
So, here is another takeaway: If you see a copperhead trying to cross South Geyer or Big Bend roads, give them a break. For snake’s sake, put on the car brakes and give the reptiles another day to rid us of rodents.