By Hannah Royal, Stewardship Associate
If you have chosen to read this article, I assume the title has hit some type of nerve – intrigue, anxiety, excitement, or a combination of the three. Snakes elicit a wide range of emotions from humans. Our state is home to 37 species of snake, only six of those being venomous. Wildlife will be on the move with cooler yet warm Fall weather on its way! You may find snakes crossing trails and roads, warming up under the sun and/or searching for food. I’ll be discussing snake species in the Triangle Region area of NC, where Triangle Land Conservancy works (Durham, Orange, Wake, Johnston, Chatham, Lee).
If you spend time outdoors, you have most likely come across these slithery creatures at some point, whether you enjoy it or not. In the Southeastern United States, snakes are ingrained into our natural and cultural fabrics, which are themselves intertwined. Visions of snake “infested” swamps, rattlesnakes in the canebrake, snake-centric religious ceremonies, rattlesnake roundups, snakes hanging from branches over creeks and falling into canoes, and so on come to mind. If I mention that I like snakes, people are quick to tell me how much they detest them or are petrified of them. Snakes are truly the forest boogeyman. These emotions even permeate through people within the conservation profession! I won’t be outing any of my coworkers here, however.
There have been some studies trying to figure out why humans are so fearful of snakes, whether it stem from nature or nurture. I do understand the negative feelings. The hatred for snakes is strong in my family and until I was forced to work with them at the age of 26, I shared that fear. This is despite never having any type of interaction with them! My fear was quickly shattered through exposure, which in turn morphed into great intrigue. I wanted to continue working with them and spent my master’s project working on their conservation. That isn’t a common path, but I think that common misconceptions about snakes can be shattered, allowing those willing to experience an appreciation of something they once found repulsive.
Whatever the reasoning behind your feelings toward snakes, the reality is that they are a part of North Carolina and a vital component of our state’s rich biodiversity. They serve as both predators and prey. By feeding on small mammals such as rodents, which unchecked can cause extensive property damage and spread disease, they help maintain balance in our ecosystems. Snakes are not immune to the negative effects of habitat loss and habitat degradation; some species, like rat snakes and copperheads, readily adapt to human-dominated environments. Others, like the elusive Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (S.E. corner of N.C. – not in this area!), have seen tremendous population declines due to the pressures of development and human persecution.
Spending any amount of time outdoors, whether in your yard gardening or at a nature preserve, provides a decent chance you will encounter a snake! If this makes you feel anxious or scared, I hope that the information in this article that follows will help you feel empowered to at least feel neutral or slightly less queasy. As they say, knowledge is power! And in this case, also a less-anxious walk through the woods. My mom no longer kills them and usually sends me a picture of her snake visitors. From a snake’s point of view, they are much smaller than us and would love nothing more than to be left alone to live their lives in peace.
Snake bites and those by venomous snakes are uncommon occurrences. When they do happen, the headlines are numerous and are often fear-mongering. Many snake bites occur when someone attempts to kill or handle a snake. If snakes feel threatened and cannot flee, they will bite as this is their only other option! According to a CDC WONDER database report, you are more likely to die from encounters with dogs, cows, deer (not counting car collisions)/horses/pigs, or stinging/biting insects than a venomous snake bite. Deaths by animals account for a very small percentage of total deaths, less than 0.008 percent of deaths each year in the U.S. Getting in a car is vastly more dangerous than your chances of a negative encounter with a venomous snake. When you are outdoors, watching where you step and put your hands is the best way to attempt to avoid snakes and stay safe.
If you are concerned about seeing snakes around your yard, here is a great article from NC Wildlife Resources Commission.
We are fortunate to have many fascinating and beautiful snake species in North Carolina. Some of the most encountered species in our area are the rat snake, racer, brown snake, various watersnake species (nope, not a cottonmouth!), rough earthsnake, copperhead, and Eastern garter snake.
The most common comments /questions about snakes usually pertain to “is it venomous?” and “is it a copperhead?” or “is it a good snake?”
Probably not. Maybe! Always, yes.
If you live in the urban areas of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, the venomous snake to consider is the copperhead. It is found all over North Carolina and can inhabit almost any type of wooded area, developed or not. It is easily identified by its unique gold and a brown hourglass or Hershey kiss-shaped pattern along its body.
While it is not uncommon to see a copperhead, many pictures sent to me from someone suspecting a copperhead was in fact, not a copperhead. The point is that if the possibility of seeing this snake scares you, it is worth familiarizing yourself with its characteristics. It can’t be enjoyable to think every snake you come across is a copperhead! This knowledge can go a long way in easing your mind when outdoors. I use the Herps of NC website frequently; it is a great place to educate yourself about the species in your area. Natural history or science museums with live animal exhibits are an excellent way to study snakes up close in a controlled, safe environment.
(*If you live in Northern, rural Durham county or Eastern, rural Wake county, the timber rattlesnake and cottonmouth are other venomous species present in those areas, respectively. Also, it is worth noting that the proportion of non-venomous to venomous species in the United States is higher than in other countries like Australia or India.)
If you see a slender, black snake, chances are it is a rat snake or racer. Neither are venomous. As juvenile snakes, both are patterned but lose the markings as they age. These markings in their youth often confuse people who misidentify them as copperheads, although the markings do not resemble those of the copperhead.
Rat snakes can retain some markings as adults, but they will appear as white mottling on a black background. Both can easily climb into vegetation. Rat snakes have a breadloaf body shape in cross-section (flat belly, round topside) that aids them in scaling up tree trunks. In general, rat snakes are laid back and slow-moving. They often kink their bodies when encountered meandering through the forest. Rat snakes are typically the culprits when you find a black snake inside of a barn or garage.
Racers are livelier and often thrash quickly to flee in the other direction, seemingly floating across the ground due to their speed and agility. They do not take kindly to being captured! As adults, they are entirely black with a grayish belly. Their bodies are rounded in a cross-section, and their large eyes assist them in sight hunting.
The non-venomous brown snake, Eastern garter snake, and rough earthsnake, are common garden/yard encounters and are worth a mention here. The brown snake and rough earthsnake are often found underneath rocks, logs, and other yard debris. They feed on earthworms, soft-bodied insects, and slugs and are 9-10 inches long on average. Often, they aren’t much longer than a long worm themselves! Check out this video comparing the brown snake to the copperhead.
Eastern garter snakes are beautiful snakes that are often called “garden” snakes; because of where they are frequently seen or mispronounced their name, I am not sure. My mother’s dog routinely notifies her of garter snakes in her wooded yard. Around this area, the species has a checkered pattern along its body with three greenish yellow stripes and striped lip scales (I call it a “Nightmare Before Christmas” mouth).
If you have a wooded yard and find copperheads or other snakes lounging under yard debris, consider making your yard a less inviting space by cleaning up anything that may be perceived as shelter (yard clipping piles, stick piles, chopped wood piles, tarps, or other cover objects, overgrown vegetation). You cannot prevent a snake from coming into your yard. If that is your goal, might I suggest moving to a top-floor apartment in a large city. That would certainly eliminate the possibility of seeing a snake! However, you can work towards making your yard less ideal for all wildlife and rest easy knowing that most animals are just passing through.
If you’ve spent time around freshwater, aquatic areas in North Carolina, chances are you’ve encountered snakes in/around the water and/or someone told you to watch out for water moccasins. “Watch out! They will charge you in the water!” I grew up going to a lake in Western North Carolina and was constantly warned by my aunt to watch out for cottonmouths. It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I learned they were nowhere near present in that area. We had been seeing the non-venomous and harmless, Northern watersnake!
If you live in or visit the Coastal Plain of NC, cottonmouths are present. They inhabit swamps, canals, pond edges, and slow-flowing streams and rivers. They are venomous and have very toxic venom; however, many myths are associated with their behavior towards humans. I am not going to get into those myths here, but I encourage you to watch this entertaining video about common cottonmouth misconceptions. If you are in the Triangle Region, minus Eastern Wake County, and you see a snake in or at the water, you can assume you are seeing a non-venomous watersnake species (red-bellied watersnake, Northern watersnake, or queen snake). Even in the Coastal Plain, there are several non-venomous snake species besides the cottonmouth associated with aquatic environments. It is worth mentioning that ALL snakes can swim and will do so if that is the best option to escape a threat.
I hope that this article has left you and your feelings towards snakes in a better place with each other, whether you started at pure hatred or admiration. Nature has plenty of wonders to offer, including creepies and crawlies. A little tolerance and respect go a long way for snakes and will help keep them and their habitats thriving in the future. The work of Triangle Land Conservancy and other like-minded organizations is made possible through the support of people like you!
Triangle Land Conservancy’s diverse nature preserves provide ample opportunity to spot various snake species! If you come across wildlife at our preserves, help us document species present through iNaturalist, eBird, or HerpMapper. These nature-based apps are great sources to help identify wildlife or plant species for you.
If you want to learn more about snakes in North Carolina, visit the Herps of NC website mentioned throughout this article.