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Spring Brings Out Slithery Snakes For Homeowners To See

GAINESVILLE—The warmer weather of a Florida springtime draws both people and wildlife out of hibernation — a combination that makes snake-sightings much more common in April than any other time of the year.

Just as snakes begin looking for food and mates, homeowners are more active in planting gardens and landscaping their yards, says Associate Professor Joe Schaefer, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Snakes seek out temperatures anywhere between 40 and 95 degrees. Some prefer it a little bit cooler, like the small snakes that are adapted to living in leaf litter.

“Other snakes feel like being out in the sun. Those that climb trees are more comfortable in sunny conditions, so they are more active this time of year,” Schaefer said.

In April it is common to see several snakes together, usually a female being courted by one or more males. Most people are frightened by snakes because they are afraid all snakes are poisonous, said Bill Kern, a UF/IFAS assistant wildlife extension specialist. But in Central Florida, all but four species of snakes are nonvenomous.

“The best way to protect yourself from a venomous snakebite is to learn the venomous snakes in your area and leave them alone,” Kern said. “Also, use common sense when outdoors, and don’t put your hands or feet any place you can’t see.”

The poisonous species commonly found in Florida are the cottonmouth moccasin, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, dusky pygmy rattlesnake and Eastern coral snake. Other venomous species found in the Panhandle include the southern copperhead and canebrake rattlesnake. They are easy to recognize by studying photographs of them in books or newsletters available at UF/IFAS Cooperative Extension offices, Kern said.

Most snakes are harmless insect- or rodent-eaters who will stay out of your way if given a chance. However, to avoid a scare, homeowners should be on the lookout when in the yard or poking around leaf piles. There are several species that are common in urban areas and live in yards, along canals, and in undeveloped areas. These are the species people usually see, and most are nonvenomous, Kern said. A hint: All snakes in Florida with stripes running lengthwise down their body (longitudinally) are nonvenomous.

“There are numerous small, secretive snakes that live in the mulch and leaf litter around the Florida home which are inoffensive creatures that feed on worms, slugs and soft-bodied insects,” Kern said. “Snakes are generally secretive, solitary predators, feeding on such things as rats, lizards, birds, other snakes, fish, or insects, depending on the species of snake. Some small burrowing snakes even specialize in eating termites.”

In 1991, retired nurse Pete Howard took over a service called “Snake Busters” provided by the Gainesville Herpetological Society. Howard volunteers his snake expertise to animal control agencies, police departments and wildlife organizations in helping homeowners who find snakes in their yards and other undesirable places. Responding to calls for help, he can usually identify the problem snake and provide the information homeowners need to decide what to do with their visitor. If the person wants the snake removed, Howard will attempt to catch the wayward reptile and relocate it to an undeveloped area.

“Nowadays, people are a lot more aware of not having to kill snakes every time they see one,” Howard said. “I tell most people, if you are close enough to kill a snake, then you are close enough to get bit. And people get bit because they either handle snakes on purpose, or they’re not careful where they put their hands and feet. And in a place like Florida, you have to be careful of that year-round.”

In the last six years, Howard has caught 12 Burmese pythons in Central Florida alone. He gets daily calls for help in relocating native species and occasional exotics like pythons, lizards and iguanas. If a person is bitten by a snake, he should remain calm and immediately call for help or get to the nearest hospital, Howard said.

“People want to know how to snake-proof their yards, but instead they need to get used to having snakes around. Snakebites are not instant death. They are rare and very few people die of snakebite. More people in Florida get killed by dogs, lightning or bees than by snakes,” Howard said.

The most commonly seen species of snake near homes is the ringneck snake, which has a very dark body with a yellow or orange ring around its neck and distinct black half circles on each belly scute (the wide scales on the underbelly). One of the most common and most often seen large snakes in Florida, the southern black racer is satin black with a white chin and blue-gray belly and can reach 6 feet in length.

Racers and baby rat snakes, as well as adult southern hognose snakes and shorttail snakes, often mimic the dusky pygmy rattlesnake by vibrating the tips of their tails when they are frightened, which makes them appear even more rattlesnake-like, Kern said.

“People are so sure that every snake is poisonous that many people convince themselves that any little snake is a pygmy rattler. This defensive behavior often makes people believe that these harmless snakes are dangerous, and they kill these beneficial animals,” Kern said. “You don’t have to kill every little snake you come across, because 95 times out of 100, you are only killing a harmless, beneficial snake.”