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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Snakes are more scared of you than you are of them

STILLWATER, Okla. – Spending time outdoors, tending to a garden, working on a brush pile or even weed eating the yard will increase the chances of encountering one of Oklahoma’s slithery occupants.
Snakes are more scared of you than you are of them

Common garter snake

The good news about running into a snake is that it is most likely harmless and actually quite beneficial.

“They are very important and help control rodents. They add beauty and interest to your garden,” said Dwayne Elmore, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist.

Snakes invoke unwarranted fear in a lot of people, which comes from a lack of knowledge about which are venomous and which are not. Picking up a copy of the “Field Guide to Oklahoma’s Amphibians and Reptiles” or visiting oksnakes.org can help clear up some of that confusion.

“Homeowners are often concerned about them, particularly whether it’s a venomous or nonvenomous snake. Even venomous ones are very beneficial,” Elmore said.

The broad head of a snake is generally a giveaway to its potential danger, with a couple of exceptions. The western hog-nosed snake is a nonvenomous snake that also has a bigger head. Additionally, some nonvenomous water snakes have broad head that can be mistaken for venomous cottonmouth, which only occurs in parts of eastern Oklahoma.

Some of the more common snakes found in Oklahoma gardens are the black rat snake and several different garter snake species. Those with a pond or water feature in the yard may encounter a yellow-bellied watersnake or broad banded watersnake.

“These are all harmless, although sometimes they will put on defensive postures, or even try to rattle their tail in leaves. These are all just efforts to try to keep you from killing them,” Elmore said. “Don’t be confused by those actions and interpret it as hostility, they’re just trying to defend themselves.”

Most strikes by snakes are situations in which a homeowner simply did not see the snake and put their hands somewhere where they were not looking or were barefoot walking through vegetation.

“Be mindful of that and make sure you can see where you are putting your hands and feet,” he said. “Consider wearing thick gloves and certainly don’t put your hands under objects without looking first, particularly in compost piles, piles of wood debris or flat objects, such as metal siding and plywood.”

If a snake is spotted and known to be nonvenomous, homeowners should just leave the snake be and let it go about its business. The same holds true for venomous species, but with some extra caution and more space between you and the snake.

“If you do identify a venomous snake in your landscape, it’s best to leave it alone,” said Elmore. “If you’re concerned about it staying in the landscape, which it probably won’t, you can call a nuisance wildlife control operator to have it removed.”

A list of operators can be found under the “Laws and Regs” tab on the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation website, wildlifedepartment.com.

The most common venomous snake to be found in the home garden is the copperhead.

“It’s a very cryptic, small snake. It’s very docile, however, because it’s so cryptic, sometimes people put their hands next to it without seeing it; especially if you’re reaching under brush, like in a compost pile,” Elmore said. “Those are situations where a strike might happen.”

Both venomous and nonvenomous snakes are extremely wary of humans and are not prone to strike. A bite is their last-ditch effort to avoid harm. Simply leaving a snake to do its job in the landscape is the best way to avoid a bad encounter.

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