A Sonoran Gopher snake, like all gopher snakes, has a narrow head and pointy tail. This is a good snake! Don’t kill it!
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
So, I’m out in the dog pen this morning. We have a big dog pen so the dogs have a safe place to get exercise and shelter from monsoon thunderstorms. It’s 35 feet by 85 feet and has a lovely grape arbor in the middle. It’s also completely fenced with chicken and goat wire. Weeds would take over if I didn’t clear along the perimeter and mulch the middle.
So, I’m merrily chopping away and that’s when I see her – a 3-foot-long Sonoran gopher snake. She’s working her way away from me through the tall weeds. What a beauty! I’m glad she’s here because she keeps the rodent population down which makes it less attractive to venomous snakes with reduced food availability. Earlier in the season we were very happy to see a Desert King snake in the grape arbor. That is another beauty that actually kills and eats venomous snakes.
I’d rather not accidentally come across a Mojave or a Western Diamondback. We have them here in southeastern Arizona. The Western Diamondback back accounts for most of the local bites that put people in the hospital. The Mojave is even more dangerous but fortunately is not as common.
In this picture of a Western Diamondback rattlesnake you can really see that triangular head. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
This picture of a Mojave rattlesnake shows the characteristic stubby tail that rattlesnakes have. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
A Desert King snake has a dark pattern, small head and pointy tail. It’s a good snake. Don’t kill it! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
So, I’m happy to see the gopher and king snakes. Ever since we moved away from the city years ago and into the country it’s been an interesting education concerning snakes. When we lived on the slopes of the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California we had our share of snake encounters. When we first moved there we had our dogs vaccinated against bites and it was a good thing, too. Our chow mix lived to chase ground squirrels and spent most of this day running pell mell, up and down hills chasing the wily critters. And because we had so many ground squirrels, we also had our fair share of Northern Pacific rattlesnakes. One day our chow was bitten. He came in limping with a big swollen leg and I immediately suspected snake bite. We took him to the vet right away and after sedation and shaving there were the telltale twin fang marks on his lower leg. He survived. The antivenom buys time to get to the vet and with our experienced vet’s care he recovered quickly.
We must have dispatched more than 60 rattlesnakes near our house over the course of our four years there. We could have relocated them if we felt up to it but we didn’t. That’s for an expert handler to do and they would have come back anyway. The owner of the ranch even had us buy a flock of guinea hens which were supposed to be snake early warning devices with their racket. Unfortunately, they quickly became bobcat food and that experiment failed.
The only way we could keep the venomous snake population down was to remove as much of their food as possible. In one 6-week period we relocated 65 squirrels to the riverbank a mile away. We humanely trapped them and the colony set up shop in a place far away from us.
I’m not a herpetologist but I can tell you from experience a few tips for how to stay safe and if you do encounter a snake how to tell a good snake from a “bad” one.
Number one: whenever you’re out of the house always look where you are walking! Especially in tall grass. Don’t stroll obliviously. The only time I see the sky when I walk is when I stop where I am and then I feel it’s safe to look up.
If you encounter a snake: Good snakes have small heads that are the width of their body. Vipers such as rattlesnakes have triangular shaped heads that are wider than their body. This is always so. I reiterate: the rattlesnake head is always wider. A gopher snake’s head MAY be wider but is not usually so. You may encounter a gopher snake and they will take a defensive position by flattening and widening their head and open their jaws to bite. They may also “buzz” their tail and strike at you. Do not be fooled by this. Gopher snakes do not know that humans don’t know this and will meet an untimely and tragic death by your hand. Step back to a safe distance and wait. They’ll most likely crawl away and you may see that their head goes back to small and you’ll also then see the pointy tail.
Yes, their tail is pointy. A rattlesnake tail is stubby because it has rattles or will be growing rattles. Also, it might not have rattles. Baby rattlers don’t have rattles. They get them as they grow older. Look for the stubby shape of the tail.
The pattern of the good snake is different than a rattler but unless you’re an expert you may not know how to tell them apart. I think a gopher snake’s pattern looks an awful lot like the rattlesnake’s. The head and the tail are your best identifiers.
As always, the best advice is to leave the snake alone and if you feel unsafe and you’re not 100%, positively, for sure, know what you’re doing it’s best to contact an expert. If you’re in an urban or suburban area the sheriff will send someone out. If you’re in the country educate yourself to know how to take care of the venomous snakes. Knowledge is power when it comes to snakes.
Renée Benoit is a writer, artist, ranch caretaker and dedicated do-it-yourselfer who homesteads a small ranch in the southeast corner of Arizona near the Mexican border. Connect with Renée at RL Benoit, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
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