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Shedding Some Light On Snakes

Sep 08, 2011

One night while fixing dinner, I saw a movement under the microwave stand. I have an old, two-story farmhouse in the woods, and when the weather gets cooler critters come in the house. I figured it was a mouse caught on a sticky board again. I looked under the stand and found myself staring eye to eye with a copperhead stuck on the sticky board. I stopped just short of screaming like a little girl.

With Oil in Hand

I keep a set of snake tongs at the front door, so I got the tongs and picked up the snake, still attached to the sticky board. Out the door I went with snake and cooking oil in hand. I got away from the house a little bit, put the snake down and covered him with cooking oil so he could squirm free. We both got a stressful experience, and I got a great story.

Knowledge is Power

I have told the story of the copperhead in the kitchen many times in my job with Outreach and Education in the Ozark Region. Although we have lots of snakes, encounters with them don’t have to be scary. A little bit of knowledge helps quell the fear, so I thought I’d share a few tips from the Ozarks about snakes.

Look for the Zipper

First, people find sheds and want to know if the long, scaly “sleeve” of skin is from a venomous snake. If you have the tail part, flip it over. Locate the vent (where the snake “goes to the bathroom”). If the scales are a double row like a zipper, it is non-venomous. If it is like a ladder—a single row like the rest of the belly—it is venomous.

Make it an Unhappy Home

Second, how can you get rid of snakes around the house? By getting rid of what makes them happy. If there is good habitat, such as a woodpile, rock pile or tall grass, get rid of it. If there are mice or other foods, get rid of them. We often hear, “but I don’t see any mice.” Ahhh, maybe you aren’t seeing them because the snake has been taking care of them. And that brings up a good point: snakes are really good exterminators. They have an important role in our world, keeping mice, rabbits and other small animals in check.

Leave Them Be

People most often get bitten when they are trying to catch snakes or kill them (or the snake thinks they are). Leave them alone. You are bigger than they are, and they think you want to eat them. They will defend themselves, and they can’t just tell you to go away. Even if you are a little put off by snakes, back up and let them go their way. You can end the day with a story to tell, and the snake can live to do its job.


Image of an osage copperhead
Osage Copperhead


We had a similar experience with a 5 foot black snake that was glue trapped in a tight spiral in our crawl space. at that time we were not aware of the oil trick and I peeled it off an inch at a time as my wife stuck little pieces of newspaper on the trap to prevent it from sticking back again. It was quite sticky when we finished so we powdered it with flour before releasing it. I am sure that if we had used vegetable oil in addition, it would have been convinced it was headed to the frying pan!

Wow, you are dedicated.  Yeah, the oil is much easier.  I'll bet that was quite a sight!  Thanks so much for taking the time a trouble to let that fella go on his way and not putting him in the frying pan! 

Yes, snakes serve a purpose and have a place in the natural order. That place is not however, in my yard or house. A while back a snake managed to apparently come up through the drain pipes at my apartment and was coiled up among the used dishes in the sink. Fortunately for the snake, it was found by my fiancee when she went to do dishes, which resulted in it being released to the cow pasture across the road. Had I been the one to find it, neither he nor the dishes would have fared too well. In addition, a friends child was bitten a couple blocks away by a copperhead while playing ball at the school grounds. This happened over the summer and was apparently provoked by him reaching down to pick up the ball after it rolled near a large rock. I have no doubt that the snake thought he was defending himself, but the end result was still a child in agony for over a month (it's amazing how much a human hand can swell up). Bottom line is I will not bother a snake in the woods or a hayfield, but once it's entered the house or, if venomous, is loitering in an area frequented by children, all bets are off and I go for a shovel, large rock, or better yet a shotgun. I am a mechanism in the process of natural selection.

Thanks for the comment Dan and I completely understand about protecting your loved ones.  If a person is uncomfortable handling a venomous snake then by all means DON'T.  And notice that I used tongs so the snake was about 4 feet away from me.  I don't take silly risks.  My heart goes out to they young one who was just reaching for the ball.  Although very rare, it does happen on occasion.  I would caution everyone to look before you reach, step on the log (not over it) and use a flashlight at night.  And wear shoes! (I have to remind myself of that one all the time.) A bite on the big toe would be quite unpleasant.  I have seen four copperheads over the last couple of nights.  These cool nights our scaly friends are coming up on the sidewalks and blacktop to warm up.   Thanks Dan for letting the critters go their own way when you can and appreciating what they do for our world. 

I am glad to hear that you were able to set the snake free without further risk to either of you. I get so frustrated with those who feel they need to kill all snakes on sight. I understand fully if the snake is causing a problem or posing a risk, but there are many benefits to having snakes around and they are an important part of our ecosystem! A snake is just out living it's life, trying to survive like any other animal. They should not be punished for being what they are or even because they have venom! How sad for those who do not see the beauty in all creation.

I have a yard snake. I have lived with her twenty years or so and see it only 2-3 times a summer season. I remember one year it had taken a morning dove. It was so FAT it could not move, it turned upside down and I assumed it was playing dead since it was too full to move. It stayed like this a full two days then finally was gone. I was so worried about it I was going out at night with a flashlight to check on it. I also put lawn chairs around with a warning sign so the lawn guy would not hurt it. I should also say my encounters with the snake have not been quiet, I HAVE screamed like a girl on several occasions, but then again I AM a girl! LOL. My snake is about a yard long but a good three to four inches around. I was told it was a Blue racer?? Not sure though. I live on an acre fairly wooded lot so lots of "work" for the snake to do. I don't even want to think about it being in the house!

Thanks for the wonderful story Lemayrenee.  Thanks too for taking such good care of your yard snake.  I love that term!  You might look at page three of the Snakes of Missouri publication to see if your snake is a Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer, or Blue Racer as they are know.  This is one that will vibrate his tail too if he is threatened.  And these guys are quick!  Thanks for reading and and caring about the forest, fish and wildlife of Missouri. 

Snakes are protected by law. It is illegal to kill snakes in the state of MO. It's because nonvenomous snakes are so often killed because the person thinks they're venomous when they're not. I hate when snakes are killed. Copperheads are pretty!

You and me both!  Copperheads are so very non-aggressive and absolutely beautiful, especially right after they shed.  The one we keep here at Twin Pines is wonderful to illustrate the chocolate "kiss" shape that only they have.  Other snakes may be patterned but only a copperhead has that kiss.  Some people say it has a bow tie or hour glass shape but that means you can see both sides and looking right down on it.  That is just a little closer that I care to be!  Good luck and keep enjoying Missouri outdoors, including snakes!

Yes George, I did let a venomous snake go free.  I could do so without harm to myself or the snake.  It worked out well.  I absolutely believe, as does the department, that you can dispatch a snake if it is causing a problem.  I wouldn't want a copperhead hanging around my grandkids either.  Wildlife of all kinds can cause problems and I like to help people take care of those problems in non-lethal ways when possible, lethal when necessary.  Everything has a purpose in making the outdoors in Missouri a place where people love to go hiking, fishing and hunting.  Snakes help the balance of things.  I just appreicate the part they play. 

Glad you brought up the point of "flathead" snakes Ona.  The Eastern Hognose snake is a very interesting critter, from flattening it's head to flipping over and playing dead.  And boy can they smell bad.  We really do have some beautiful snakes in Missouri that do some really cool behaviors.  And it is okay not to want to hang around them.  I have to confess, I was terrified of snakes when I was younger.  Wouldn't even look at a photo.  Over the years as I learned more about them I have come to appreciate just how special they are.  I love letting a child touch a snake but I am very careful not to "help" someone over their fear by thrusting a snake in their face.  Thanks again for the comment and for not killing the critters.  Good for you!

Thanks for the comment and thanks for rescuing the ringnecks.  It is amazing how many insects thos small snakes can eat.  I have a rough green snake that has eaten 13 grasshoppers in one sitting.  Can you imagine how many insects there would be without these little guys?  They're amazing.  Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading the Pine Needle.

My most frequent snake evictions are the little ringnecks that try to come in. If I don't get to them first, they become cat toys ;o)

When my two older boys were little I was taking them fishing at Brush Creek in Crawford County where my mom and dad had a place. As we were walking down the trail the boys told me that I had just walked over a snake. I told them I didn't think that was funny but went back to look. Sure enough there he was laying across the trail with his head flattened out. I knew that hognose snakes did this but this one was so brightly colored it just didn't match any pictures I had ever seen. With my heart pounding in my chest I told the boys we were going back to the house. My dad told me that everyone called them flathead snakes around there. It wasn't until I saw a segment on Sesame Street about snakes that I saw one as brightly colored. I'm not fond of snakes so I always give them a wide berth.

I am not believing you turned a poison snake loose!!!!!! Black Snake ok, as long as they stay in the grain bin. Well the only good copperhead is a dead one. Oh I know you are going to tell me snakes are protected, yeah well, not on my farm. I really don't understand you guys any more. Used to be the conservation commission had some common sense when dealing with wildlife,not anymore.

I love snakes and enjoy any opportunity to see one in it's natural environment, even if it is near my house. I am glad I have an opportunity to teach my children to respect and appreciate these amazing creatures. I am glad you were able to get it out of your house without harm to either of you!

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