North American Snakes: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

Set aside your fears, and you conception of them as symbols of evil. Most North American Snakes aren't the least bit dangerous to humans.

| June/July 2006

When I began wildlife consulting at the Austin, Texas, Natural Science Center, I quickly learned how intensely some people react to snakes. The vast majority of North American snakes pose no threat to humans (those that do are coral snakes and the pit vipers: rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths). But for those who called the Center, no other issue carried the same urgency as a snake in their vicinity.

One of my first such emergencies entailed a supposed tree-climbing cobra. When I arrived in the suburban subdivision, four firefighters — summoned by the same anxious homeowners who’d called me — were being raised into a large oak tree. After half an hour of treetop acrobatics — the snake darted from branch to branch just beyond their clutching fists — the firefighters gave up trying to grab what I could see was a long, slim Texas rat snake. After I declared that the snake was, for certain, not a cobra, the neighborhood settled down.

A majority of my snake-related calls came from people who had recently moved to the country. I felt a special connection with these rural residents because I was about to homestead a few acres myself. There, I would embark upon writing field guides to North American snakes.

Distinguishing Danger

Out at my new place on the edge of east Texas’ woods, I found a lot of subject matter for my books. My first visitor was a slow-moving, thick-bodied eastern hog-nosed snake. These innocuous creatures often show up around country houses where their primary prey, toads, are attracted by the insects they find in gardens or yards.

In some of its color variations, the hog-nosed snake resembles the venomous copperhead, but the latter has a narrow neck and wide head, bordered with indented cheeks that have heat-sensing cavities. In contrast, the hog-nosed snake has a thick neck, no facial pits and a snout with a sharply upturned hook. Even more distinctive are its small eyes and round pupils, which you can see from several feet away. They are entirely unlike copperheads’ larger eyes and vertical pupils. All of North America’s venomous serpents have vertical pupils, except for the coral snake.

The rat snake is another that’s often mistaken for something venomous. Sometimes called the “chicken snake,” rat snakes vary in color from black to dark-mottled gray (in the Northeast), to yellow with dark stripes (in the Southeast) to chocolate-patterned rusty brown (in Texas). Like the hog-nosed snake, rat snakes often are mistaken for venomous varieties because of their large size and blotchy patterns.

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