Slithering Snakes

By Greg Grant, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

Yes, I probably should have been an Appalachian, snake-handling preacher, as I’ve never been afraid of snakes or anything else that slithers for that matter.

As a matter of fact, quite the opposite: I actually like snakes. As a lover of nature, I admire snakes and their role in the ecosystem, just as I do birds, butterflies, bats, bees and box turtles.

I know, I know; most of you hate snakes. It’s been drilled in your heads since birth, generation after generation. As my former county-agent co-worker used to say, “It’s biblical!” Every last person in my office is deathly afraid of snakes, including my boss.

Rattlesnakes are one of four venomous snakes in Texas | Vego Garden

Well, I hate to break it to you “haters,” but Texas snakes don’t eat people. They are designed by nature to kill and eat rodents and other small creatures (things they can swallow whole), including frogs and insects. And yes, there are poisonous snakes; but once again, their venom is designed to subdue small animals, not large. Out of the 75 or so species of snakes in Texas, only four are venomous: rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins and coral snakes.

I hate it, but these poisonous guys (beneficial as well) give the whole bunch a bad name, leading to the common expression, “The only good snake is a dead snake.”

Native snakes are needed to balance nature

Ribbon snakes are native to Texas | Vego Garden

All native snakes are “good,” just like all native plants, birds and insects are good. They all fill a balance-of-nature role thousands of years old. And certainly they were here before us, with snakes having lived on the planet something like 100 million years.

Venomous Copperhead | Vego Garden

Although I have friends who think a poisonous snake is going to bite them every time they set foot in the garden, that scenario certainly isn’t very common. After all, I’ve spent more than half a century traipsing around during the day and dark in pastures, woods, sheds, barns and gardens, and haven’t been bitten yet. And that includes catching lots of them! I will confess that my Pappaw was once bitten by a copperhead while picking a watermelon, and a number of my terriers have been bitten over the years, but they were biting the snake first!

Most of my early experience with snakes was with what country folks call “chicken snakes,” technically known as Texas rat snakes. In addition to a steady diet of rodents, chicken snakes are also known for eating eggs and baby birds, including those found in the barnyard. Naturally this meant country people dependent on chickens for food hated them more than just biblically.

Rat snakes are still called chicken snakes

This rat snake, also known as a chicken snake, was caught in a nest | Vego Garden

I’ll never forget my granddad’s ability to pop the head off a chicken snake, like cracking a whip. The main reason I won’t forget is the first time he showed me the trick, a glob of snake innards ended up on the side of my face!

Another run-in with a chicken snake involved my normally mild-mannered Granny Ruth chopping one to pieces in the middle of her old farmhouse hallway while my horrified sister and I gawked in disbelief during the middle of the night from our “bed” nearby on an old couch. The sneaky snake was helping himself to her baby ducklings also in a box not far away. My Granny Ruth loved her babies.

Chicken snakes and other critters that helped themselves to chickens and other edibles on the farm are one of the reasons most country folks had varmint dogs.

For as long as I can remember, these dogs were trained to kill snakes from the time they were pups. Some of the more skilled ones, like my Pappaw’s Nero or my late Rosie, were as skilled as a mongoose when subduing a snake. Though many of my dogs have been bitten by poisonous snakes, none have ever died. My veterinarian brother says it’s rare, unless they are bitten where their airway swells shut.

I’ll admit to killing the poisonous snakes that bite my dogs, otherwise I let all snakes be, sometimes even relocating them, as I did with a family of baby copper- heads in my pump house.

In my area of the state, beautiful copperheads are one of our more common snakes, and though vicious little guys, the young are quite showy with neon yellow-green tips on their tails.

Texas Brown Snake | Vego Garden

Most recently I captured a small Texas brown snake to put in my office terrarium to help teach my co-workers that most snakes were harmless. It didn’t work, however. Though these naturally small snakes only grow to 12-inches long, they all insisted it was a baby snake that would grow larger, crawl out and bite someone. Good grief. Snake horror movies aren’t helping me out any.

The Texas Kingsnake is a beneficial non-venomous snake | Vego Garden

I’m not the only snake lover in the family, as my mom claims to have a pet kingsnake in her landscape that she can “call up” as needed. What??? I would normally doubt her inherited truth distortions, but one day she was telling a visitor from the Texas and Parks and Wildlife Department about her pet snake and as he rolled his eyes she pointed down beside her and said “here he comes.” Sure enough, Mr. Kingsnake slithered up for the conversation. One day we even watched him eating a copperhead in the flower bed. I think that’s when they bonded.

I suppose my snake-love stems from the day (when I was a child walking through the woods) I killed an eastern hognose snake. After getting off the school bus, a neighbor girl at the front of the line on the woodland trail shouted, “A cobra!”

Born to be the hero, I jumped to the front of the line and beat him into submission with a tree branch. I knew something was up when it proceeded to throw-up three toads, the first of which actually hopped away. Eastern hognose snakes (known as “spread adders” to the country folks) don’t eat little girls. They eat toads and other such critters. Sadly, they make such a display to scare people away that most (like other snakes that encounter people) end up being killed.

No need to to be nervous

The lesson here is that snakes are as afraid of us as we are of them. Leave them alone. Don’t pick them up and handle them if you don’t know what kind they are. Not everybody has to rescue snakes like I do. But do leave them alone and let them do their jobs in the landscape.

Our jobs, as stewards of the landscape, is to protect all its integrated parts, not try to create purely artificial ornamental gardens that aren't sustainable in the long run. Cut nature some slack and enjoy the beauty, even if it's slick and slithering.



  • RA Corp

    I totally agree with you about snakes.

  • RA Corp

    I totally agree with you about snakes.

  • Dave

    Amazing article. I confess that I’m one who has always loathed snakes. But this article changed my opinion. (And thus I’m a bit changed too.). I’ll view snakes more as part of the system, and respect the role they play. But I’ll still keep a distance. Thank you for a thoughtful piece.

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