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Snakes in the Garden
As a young child, I visited my grandmother in Oregon. We had hunkered down, picking luscious, red strawberries in her garden, when a snake suddenly slid over my hand and disappeared under the straw. Needless to say, I was startled. But it didn’t bite me, nobody killed it, and we resumed our strawberry picking.
We know then when we see them: skinny, legless, earless, some would say slimy reptiles. They frequently trigger a visceral response, but most snakes are more helpful than harmful. Case in point, you are nearly ten times more likely to die in the US from a lightning strike than a snake bite.
However, even nonvenomous snake bites can cause an allergic reaction, so we should know how to respond.
Treat all snake bites as though the snake was venomous, using these tips from Johns Hopkins Medical:
Contrary to movie drama, do not suck out the venom or apply a tourniquet. If the swelling worsens, or your breathing becomes labored, go to an emergency room.
Preventing snake bites
The easiest way to prevent a snakebite is to leave them alone. If you are like me and created a meadow in your landscape, you can prevent snake bites and other foot injuries by wearing boots instead of flip-flops. And make sure you can see into dark spaces before reaching in with an unprotected hand. Snakes aren’t the only things that may be hiding there. Rat bites are far worse than snake bites, in my opinion. Snakes are solitary creatures and will avoid you when they can.
As cold-blooded reptiles, snakes will often sun themselves to collect warmth. You can encourage snakes in your garden with rock piles that provide a place to hide, as well as a place to safely catch some rays. Before panicking at the first sight of a snake, let’s learn a little about these amazing creatures.
The snake clan
There are approximately 3,900 species of snakes (Serpentes) in the world. Of those, 725 are considered venomous. The US is home to two types of venomous snakes: coral snakes and pit vipers. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads (water moccasins) are all pit vipers. To see which venomous snakes are native to your state, the antivenom company, CroFab created a handy interactive tool you can try here.
While each region has its favorites, the most common garden-variety snakes include garter snakes, kingsnakes, milk snakes, racers, rat snakes, and water snakes.
It is easy to confuse snake species, especially when the adrenaline is flowing. This rhyme may help:
“Red on black, a friend of Jack; red on yellow, kill a fellow.”
Or, simply, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow.”
Also, snakes of the same species can look very different depending on the region, locale climate, and other factors.
Snakes smell using their tongues, and many species have heat sensors on their snouts. Their bellies are very sensitive to vibrations in the ground. Unlike bears, which sleep during hibernating, snakes remain awake but unmoving in a behavior called brumation when temperatures drop. And snakes do not dislocate their jaws. Instead, their lower jaws are flexible enough to allow them to swallow prey larger in diameter than they are.
Snakes as an indicator species
As predators, snakes only live where there is food. If your garden hosts a snake, you can pat yourself on the back for creating a healthy and diverse ecosystem in your yard. Snakes commonly eat insects, mice, moles, rats, slugs, tarantulas, and voles that damage your crops. On the other hand, snakes are food for birds and other mammals. A garden with a snake is generally a healthy place
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