Saturday, June 4, 2016

Copperhead on the Porch: Ruminations about Snakes in the Garden

Copperhead in my garden in Durham, former address:
please notice the distinctive pattern over the body,
the copper colour of its head, the triangular shape.
Photo by Angelique Droessaert.
By Angelique Droessaert
Daylily Garden Club

As an active gardener I come across snakes quite regularly, and it always shocks me when I discover a copperhead under some heavy foliage inches away from my hand, while weeding or cleaning up. It is an instinctive, gut reaction. I shriek... And draw back....

After I catch myself, reason returns.  I understand it was there because it did a job around my house-- and taking care of a problem so well, I had not noticed it; it had been hunting vermin. I then realize I should be grateful to the creature, and not  punish it by harming it for helping me and not biting me. Bad karma!! ;)

As frightening as it may be at first, you have to accept this is North Carolina we live in: it is the South, and hot and humid in the summer, and snakes are all around us, even more so if you live close to wetlands, or creeks and lakes. Most of the time you do not notice them, as they are quite shy and afraid of men for good reasons. But snakes are literally everywhere: in woods, in the waters, in creeks, up in trees, lounging on warm driveways, hiding under crawl spaces, breeding in brush piles and decaying wood, sunning on warm rocks. Snakes are part of nature and they are there for a reason. They keep small rodents in check.

Rita, the red bellied watersnake in our current garden. 
Photo by Angelique Droessaert.
You do want black snakes and rat snakes around your house and basement. They are your house protectors. They are the “good” snakes, sometimes measuring over 5 feet. They have small oval heads and are quite inoffensive to humans. They hunt vermin and copperheads. Unfortunately they can also be fond of birds, and eggs in nests up in trees. It is all part of the ecological balance. 

Recently, living so close to the wetlands here in Hope Valley, a new species has made an appearance around Durham, also non-poisonous and inoffensive: the red bellied watersnake (as identified by a colleague at Duke). It has been moving westwards from the coastal eastern areas.

Last summer, after a week of torrential rains, we encountered one we nicknamed "Rita" who measured easily over 4 feet. We rescued Rita around our house, next to an edge of sod, right next to one of my dead (!) lavenders and rosemary bushes. It had gotten trapped in the fine mesh of the sod that had been installed by our landscaper the previous year...(argh). My husband, born and raised in Texas, has done his share of wrestling with snakes and rattlers, and I can rely on his skills when I am too intimidated to make the first moves. Carefully holding down its head with a forked branch, we liberated it from the netting, and after exploring and stroking its surprisingly dry, scaly back, and examining the abrasions from the plastic netting, we realized that thankfully, it was just a superficial wound. Rita was surprisingly docile throughout the procedure. My husband then picked it up, one hand right behind Rita’s head, the other more towards the middle of its rather long body, and moved it to the wetter area on the side of our house, in a culvert. Once released, it very quickly moved away and under cover. Rita is a beautiful looking creature, ( see picture below) bronzy brown colored with an orange red underbelly, and as most snakes, really does not want to have anything to do with humans.

Please be kind. Young black snakes are often mistaken for copperheads. If in doubt, look at the shape of their heads, oval --non poisonous; triangular—they got teeth to bite their prey and inject toxins…
In my 33 years gardening in Durham and Chapel Hill,  hiking and gardening very actively, I encounter copperheads and black snakes every year--- I have never been bitten!!!

After my initial "shock" I quietly have a talk with the creature and bless it, thank it for hunting vermin on my territory and not biting me, and then I ask it to leave and take its family along. It has always worked as I never encounter another copperhead that season.

Black snake, or black racer on my deck under the grill: May-June is
mating season, and these black snakes are looking for a partner.
They can move incredibly fast, I had trouble capturing the entire creature
despite multiple exposures with my iPhone camera.
Photo by Angelique Droessaert. 
That being said, I fully understand the need to protect our children and small pets from harm and doing whatever is necessary for safety. Absolutely. 
Just remember please: snakes are far more afraid of us, than we are of them and most snakes, although frightening the heck out of us, are non aggressive (unless taunted or fearing for their life) They just are there because they are hunting vermin. 

Being warned of their presence by a close encounter, I also take more precautions. On hot days I take a stick along when gardening, and pound it on the grass or soil before stepping or poking my hand into leafy areas. I also tend to wear clogs or sneakers, rather than flip flops… and stomp my foot more purposefully on the ground a few give anything creeping a chance to scoot away before I step in. .
May all creatures great and small flourish around us,  and with us.  

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