Just a bit of Father’s Day excitement here on the ‘stead, where this morning Sirius the Cat was seen stalking a slithery something in the jasmine growing along the garden fence next to the gateway.
Here in the highlands of the Blue Ridge – we are about 4 miles as the eagle flies from the eastern continental divide in the Western No’Cakalackie southern Appalachians – we don’t have that many pit vipers to worry about. Only ones we ever see, in fact, are copperheads and timber rattlers. Copperheads aren’t very long or heavy snakes, but they’re aggressive as hell and will actually chase you (or your cat, or your dog, or your grandkids) down just to get a bite in on something they’re either too mean or too stupid to know is never gonna fit into their mouth. In the 21 years we’ve lived on our remote homestead acreage we’ve averaged a copperhead a year to add to the fence collection of heads, but that really means some years we get several and some years we get none.
Grandson who has lived his whole life with us has never been bitten, but another grandson and a nephew visiting from their cities have. You can warn those city kids until you’re blue in the face to watch where they’re walking and stay away from snakes, but they’ve just no experience of the “deep woods” to rely upon, and that can easily end in a quick and painful trip to the ER and an inevitable argument with the ER staff who always want to insist that we can’t possibly know what kind of snake did the biting. Even though we’ve killed it and packed its head into a zip-lock to prove the point. Doesn’t exactly lend great confidence in their treatment skills, which no doubt helps to explain why grandson Number 2 ended up losing half his thumb to his copperhead.
And just so you city folk can know, copperheads and timber rattlers look nothing alike, nor are their habits anything close. Rattlers are a bit more evolved than copperheads, at least in my estimation. They are quite mellow temperamentally, generally avoid biting animals they can’t fit into their mouths (why waste precious venom?), would much rather do a little macho dance and rattle their tails menacingly instead. Sound a lot like cicadas, so that can be confusing if you’re not paying attention. And while they can easily blend into the scenery of a dappled forest floor or rock outcropping, out on the lawn or in the garden these heavy-bodied snakes are darned hard to miss. Our Father’s Day rattler was just barely 3 feet long (they can get to six feet), had five rattles.
Another urban myth about rattlesnakes – no, you can’t reliably tell how old the snake is by how many rattle rings it’s got. Because as the snake ages and more rattles are added with the annual molt, dried up old rattles at the end fall off. And while you may encounter a single snake when it’s on the hunt, rattlers tend to maintain familial relationships, sun themselves in groups and will den-in in large numbers during the winter.
Of course we kind of felt sorry for him, as rattlers generally don’t come into the mowed areas of the property at all, and this is the first one I’ve ever seen in the garden vicinity. We have a nice collection of nifty snake beheading devices kept in groups at several places around the property where copperheads are likely to show up, and a well-practiced alarm system for when one of ‘em does show up. The spotter must stay put and holler “SNAKE!!!” as loudly as possible, without taking his or her eyes off the thing. Because if you do, it’s going to disappear quickly and then you’ll know it’s around but not where.
We who hear the alarm then hurry to the closest beheading device storage and grab at least one long-handled device and one short, head to the scene of the showdown. We do not usually attempt to kick the snake to death barefooted – much prefer a hoe, a shovel, a heavy bank scythe, a sword, or a machete. For this one grandson used a hatchet (as seen in photo above).
People eat these rattlesnakes, I’ve heard they taste like chicken (doesn’t everything?). But since we don’t eat meat of any variety, we buried the body. If it had been as slim and lithe as the usual copperhead we’d simply have tossed it off the mountainside into the deep woods, but this one would be far too tempting to the dogs.
Rattlesnakes are pretty mellow critters as snakes go. Those rattles are there so they can warn you, which is kind. Their venom has been known to kill humans, but they don’t bite unless they have to. We nailed the head to the fence, a custom we learned in west Texas many decades ago. ‘They’ say it’ll keep the snake’s brothers away, but I’m not convinced that’s true. Doesn’t work that way with copperheads, anyway. Where there’s one there’s always another nearby that you aren’t seeing. I guess we’ll find out if that’s how it works for rattlers too. Oh… and hanging the head on the fence makes it rain, the same ‘they’ say. It rains an inch a day here in the southern Appalachian temperate rain forest this time of year, so I can’t swear to that one either.
At any rate, we’re into snake season now. While there are just the two species of poisonous snakes in my area, there are other varieties of venomous snakes in other areas of the country. Check out some of the useful information in the following links, and don’t forget that venomous snakes are a threat to pets and livestock as well as to humans. Happy Summer, and watch out for snakes!