Q: Born and bred in Houston, we moved to East Texas over fifteen years ago. Lately, we have been overrun with snakes, namely copperheads that are immediately rendered lifeless by way of a shovel. Longtime residents have informed me to only kill a snake if it is an imminent threat. I once relocated a garden snake, but copperheads and rattlers suffer the shovel. Am I being paranoid, or do I have the right to defend my homestead against all such invaders?
Douglas Parker, Huntsville
A: There is a fairly widely held belief among Texans that the only good snake is a dead snake. There’s a slightly less widely held belief that the only good snake is a dead snake that has been skinned and had its hide tanned and fashioned into a snazzy hatband or belt. Folks are staunch in their thinking when it comes to snakes (and snakeskin fashion accessories) and whether they should be allowed to slither freely about without molestation.
Time was when most everyone prone to occasionally encounter a snake fell into the shovel camp or a camp of a similar garden tool, such as the hoe camp, the spade camp, the ax camp, or the machete camp. And those who did not fit into any of these camps could likely be found in the shotgun camp. The Texanist was himself even once an ardent shotgun camper, having followed in his father’s footsteps. And because his dad never let him forget it, he recalls very clearly his initiation, which may have coincided with his very first shotgun blast. The Texanist will spare you the details, but it was a warm summer day in the 1970s. While riding around a piece of property outside of Temple in the bed of Ol’ Blue, the Texanist’s dad’s faithful farm truck, the pre-adolescent Texanist spied what he was sure was an enormous rattler climbing a small oak tree. He banged on the window alarmingly, alerting his dad, who abruptly stopped, pulled the Browning 20-gauge from the gun rack and handed it to the Texanist, who then, apparently, at least as it was told and retold on numerous occasions around the dinner table, crept to within about ten feet of the serpent, took an inordinate amount of time (something in the ballpark of ten minutes if you were to believe the Texanist’s dad) drawing a bead on the creature, and then, eventually, blasted to kingdom come what turned out to be a harmless Texas rat snake. The joke was on the Texanist.
But that was then. Over time, with the rise of both herpetology (the area of zoology that deals with the study of reptiles and amphibians) and humankind’s collective I.Q., many Texans have come to realize that snakes, which eat all manner of nasty rodents, are a welcome part of the landscape and, further, that a dead snake, in many cases, isn’t nearly as good as a live snake—especially so in the case of a harmless Texas rat snake, which deserved better than to be on the receiving end of the young Texanist’s slothfully (but well-)aimed shotgun.
A while back, the Texanist answered a question about cottonmouth snakes that had taken a shine to a nice lady’s Hill Country swimming hole. In the course of helping out that woman, the Texanist was able to pass along a few fun facts about snakes. Did you know that some 115 species and subspecies of snakes call Texas home? And that this is more than any other state the whole United States over? And that among these heaps and heaps of snakes there are ten venomous species, including seven types (counting two pygmy versions) of rattlers; coral snakes; cottonmouths, the only venomous water snake found in the U.S.; and, of course, copperheads? It’s all true; the Texanist checked with his helpful friends at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
Copperheads, in this case the southern copperhead, a.k.a. Agkistrodon contortrix, have a striking appearance, with a light-brown, slightly pinkish, somewhat stubby body that features wide dark brown bands and the telltale triangular head of the venomous pit viper. And although copperheads can be found almost all over the state, they are particularly keen on your neck of the woods there in East Texas, especially the leaf-covered, sun-dappled ground around river bottoms, where they feed on the plentiful baby cottontails, baby turtles, rats, mice, birds, lizards, frogs, toads, swamp rabbits, grasshoppers, cicadas, and other insects.
The reason you’ve seen an uptick in snaky activity of late is probably because the relatively slow-moving copperhead is diurnal (active during the day) in early spring (they’re nocturnal in the heat of the summer) and is also entering the first of its two mating seasons (they’ll be on the prowl again in the fall), which, for obvious reasons, has them out and about of late.
As you might guess, the Parks & Wildlife folks, just like the fellow East Texans you consulted, stand fairly firmly against the killing of most all snakes, including rattlers and copperheads. With the safety of humans and pets paramount, they endorse education, awareness, and avoidance. That said, you are, for better or worse, within your rights to handle your sidewinding visitors as you see fit. Be advised, though, that there are a number of snakes that are, due to conservation concerns, protected in Texas. Putting the shovel to one of these, such as the timber rattler, could land you in hot water.
You should also be advised that most of the run-ins with snakes that end badly (for the human) are the result of unnecessary foolishness, which sometimes ensues during attempts to kill them. It may be cold comfort, but on average only one or two Texans die each year due to venomous snake bites. In fact, because of copperheads’ short fangs and the minimal amount of venom dispensed, their bites are seldom fatal. Statistically, insect bites and lightning strikes are more likely to get you than the nip of a venomous snake.
It’s good to be cautious, but perhaps you are being just a smidge paranoid. Were the Texanist you, he’d see to it that the areas around his home were kept well trimmed and free of rock, wood, and brush piles, which will go a long way toward decreasing their hospitableness to snakes. He’d also watch where he stepped and be careful where he reached. In short, he’d follow the advice of the experts (and your fellow East Texans) and save the shovel for its intended use.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.