Perhaps with this being published on an Australian website, home to so many of the world’s most poisonous snakes (Check out this article next), I should precursor the following with the fact that I live in Western North Carolina. Here there are two only poisonous snakes in the wild: Northern copperheads (Agkistrodon contortix mokasen) and timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus). While the state has four other venomous species (cottonmouth, eastern diamondback rattler, pigmy rattler, and coral), those stay in the warmer spots of the state.
Copperheads are known to be aggressive and are really hard to notice in a bed of leaves, but half the bites—“dry bites” or warning shots—result in mild swelling and pain. In fact, the antivenin usually isn’t administered for copperhead bites because it can cause more complications than the bite itself. They are also fairly easy to identify once spotted. Copperheads account for 10 times the number of poison control calls than all other NC snakes combined.
Timber rattlers are referred to as canebrakes in the hotter, eastern side of the state, where they are more common. Nevertheless, they do exist here, and I have happened upon one, which gave me due warning of its presence. That’s the beauty of rattlesnakes: they let you know when you are getting too close. Their bites have caused deaths, but they tend to be shy snakes, like most snakes, and pleased to get away rather than strike. Due to development and large-scale agriculture, they are almost vestigial in the forests where we live.
In other words, finding a snake in the garden isn’t all that harrowing an experience for me, though I do still release a squeal when it happens. And, that’s just what happened this weekend when a small, racer (Coluber constrictor) snake slithered quickly over my foot (in sandal) as I walked through our garden to see how seedlings were popping. I’d seen the same snake the day before in nearly the same spot. This time I leapt a couple feet (or at least what felt like a couple of feet) in the air. At the same time, an involuntary howl spewed forth from deep within me. Then, I happily watched it slither through the black raspberry canes and into the newly planted food forest.
Snakes Are Our Friends.
To be honest, I’m a bit skittish about snakes, and this is even more apparent when my wife Emma and I encounter one. Her first instinct is to run towards it. She’s British, grew up in England, and didn’t have a childhood filled with the same snake myths that I did. Plus, she just loves and is fascinated by animals, in particular snakes and bears, both of which are local residents. In Louisiana, there were numerous legends of water skiers falling in nests of angry water moccasins. The fear of snakes was reared into us.
In reality, snake bites happen in US at a rate of less than 1 in 10,000 annually, and of those 1 in 600 bites are fatal with medical treatment. In other words, death by snake bite in the US really isn’t all that large of concern: of the 6,000 to 8,000 bites that occur each year in the US (0.0024% of the population), 5-10 people die. These sorts of statistics weren’t shared with me as a kid. Instead, like with wild mushrooms, I was taught to fear them instead of educate myself about them and enjoy the benefits. I now love to forage mushrooms, and I’m learning to love close encounters with snakes.
Since getting into permaculture, I’ve constantly devised snake habitats into designs because I’m supposed to and fearfully hoped for them to join the garden menagerie along with the frogs, toads, lizards, and praying mantis. Despite my inner dialogue and latent fear, it would seem that those designs—stacks of rocks mostly—have been a big success. This year, barely feeling the sweat of spring warmth upon my brow, snakes are making their presence known, and I’m finally learning to relax about it, to embrace the snake (not literally) as an ally.
Garter snakes, often called gardener snakes, are the most common snakes for gardeners to see, and we have the eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) where we are. Garter snakes actually get their name from the stripes that run up their sides, resembling the garters used to hold up stockings. They are excellent predators for handling things like beetles and squash bugs, as well as beneficial garden residents like frogs, lizards, and earthworms. Larger ones also handle household pests like mice. But, like ducks, they get special notice from gardeners because they are one of the few animals that snack on slugs.
Snakes Aren’t So Bad After All
In general, the snakes we find in gardens here in the US, and especially in Western North Carolina, are the kinds we want to find. While people may still be terrified of close encounters with copperheads and rattlesnakes, the likelihood of seeing a relatively harmless racer, rat snake, or garter snake is exponentially greater. Emma has it right: Snake encounters should be exciting for us.
Truth be known, when my construction of a gate was interrupted by a timber rattler, after I regained my breath, my reaction was to watch in awe and grab the camera so that Emma would believe me. The rattler slithered across the driveway, alongside the stack of firewood, and into the nearby woodlands. A couple of times my photographing was a little too enthusiastic, and it let me know that. Nevertheless, my initial heart jolt quickly gave way to fascination.
Additionally, we have run across—not quite so literally as I did this weekend—many other species. Another local, eastern ribbon snakes (Thamnophis sauritus), close relatives to eastern garters, look and behave similarly. A ring-necked (Diadophis punctatus) snake likes to hang around one of our other garden spaces. We’ve spotted large rat snakes (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) in lots of places, particularly haunting the nest of phoebe birds that visit us in the spring. We’ve also encountered worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus) and northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon) here.
In short, snakes are plentiful, as are encounters, but we’ve yet to have a problem. If anything, each sighting has been an exhilarating moment to watch a creature that seems so improbable.
The Actual Problem With Snakes.
More than threatening human lives, in rural North Carolina (and most places), the bigger issue with snakes is that they like to prey on chickens and chicken eggs, which are often features of the permaculture homestead. Being vegans, this isn’t a great issue for us; nevertheless, it’s something that has to be addressed by others. Rat snakes may be great garden and housekeeping pals, controlling rodent populations, but they are foxes in the henhouse, so much so that they are sometimes called chicken snakes.
There are some basic precautionary measures to help with snake control in the chicken coop.
- Keep grass mowed around chicken run and chicken coops. Snakes don’t like to cross the open areas. They also don’t like to cross sharp mulch, such as shells.
- Don’t pile things near the chicken coop. Snakes enjoy piles of logs, sticks, rocks, tin, and shrubs. These hiding spots provide shelter for snakes to stay safe from their predators.
- Some people use deterrent aromas via essential oils (cinnamon, clove, and cedar wood) and plants (lemongrass, wormwood, garlic).
- Guinea fowl and turkeys are more snake predators than snake prey. Having them around chickens helps to keep the chickens safe.
- Plug any inviting holes snakes may use to enter the chicken coop.
For the most part, snakes—even the dangerous ones—are going to steer clear of humans if they have that option. They’d much prefer to slip under a rock pile at the edge of the garden or stay hidden under some leaf mulch than start a battle with a person. That’s not to say accidents never happen, and of course, I walk through the forest, where copperheads and timber rattlers tend to be, with due caution (overdue really). But, I’m growing more and more in my appreciation of snakes and the joy of having them around.
This week, as I’ve walked between garden rows, I’ve found myself looking for that racer, not out of fear, but because I hope it has found itself a nice place to live and I want to see it again.