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Farm Advisor: Coping With Snakes

This article was provided to MyMotherLode.Com by Calaveras County Farm Advisor Ken Churches.

San Andreas, CA — According to art and mythology, humans have interacted with snakes for thousands of years. In some cultures, snakes were a symbol of fertility and in others they were servants of the dark world. Today, people´s reactions to snakes are still as varied. Although people have coped with snakes for centuries, ancestors of snakes appeared long before our human predecessors.

Snakes possess reptilian characteristics: they have scales; are ectothermic (they rely on external sources to control their body temperature); and, like most reptiles, lay eggs. Rattlesnakes, however, give birth in autumn to five to 12 live young, each one to two inches long. Contrary to their reputation of being slimy, snake scales actually are smooth and dry. Snakes often shed their skin more than once each year to accommodate their growing bodies.

Since snakes are ectothermic, they must avoid extremes in temperatures and hunt preferably during mild conditions. Their forked tongues and heat-sensitive facial pits are used to determine what exists in their environment and to acquire prey. It is important to remember that a dead rattlesnake, even if it has been decapitated, is still capable of biting (not striking) and injecting poison. The snake´s heat sensory pits are active until rigor mortis sets in and will trigger a biting response if a warm object, such as a hand, is placed near the snake´s mouth. Most snakes prey predominately on rodents, although some also eat bird eggs, nestlings and insects.

Snakes need cool, damp shelters and may take residence under and possibly inside buildings. Non-poisonous snakes do not pose any major problems for humans besides fear and sometimes being pests. Poisonous snakes, however, may cause a health hazard by biting people, pets and livestock.

There are four methods to discourage snakes from moving into a yard or home:

1. Eliminate cool, damp areas where snakes hide; clean up brush piles, keep shrubbery away from foundations and cut high grass.

2. Control insect and rodent populations (the snake´s primary food source) to force them to seek areas with a larger food supply. Put grains in tightly sealed containers, clean up residual pet food, cut grass short and clean up debris.

3. In rattlesnake-infested areas, construct a snakeproof fence around the backyard or play area. Use galvanized hardware cloth with a 1/4-inch mesh and a height of 36 inches and bury six inches deep, slant outward at a 30-degree angle. Make certain the gate fits tightly and swings into the play area. Keep all vegetation away from the fence to prevent snakes from climbing over it.

4. To prevent snakes from entering basements and crawl spaces, seal all openings 1/4-inch or larger with mortar, caulking compound, or 1/8-inch hardware cloth. Check for holes or cracks around doors, windows, water pipes, electrical lines, etc.

The best safety measure against poisonous snakes is to be prepared for a possible encounters with them, especially if hiking in their habitat. In areas inhabited by rattlesnakes, wear long loose pants and calf high leather boots or preferably snake guards. Rattlesnakes generally are non-aggressive toward humans unless they are startled, cornered or stepped on. Alert them of your approach by sweeping grassy areas with a long stick before entering. Never jump over logs, turn over rocks, or sit down carelessly. Always look carefully where you place your hands, feet or body. Remember, rattlesnakes do not always shake their rattles before striking, so do not rely only on your sense of hearing. If you are confronted with a rattlesnake, remain calm and try to back away slowly and carefully.

The most useful snakebite first aid kit consists of car keys and coins for calling the hospital. If bitten, remain calm and get to a hospital. Call ahead to the hospital so that the emergency room and physician can prepare for arrival of the patient. If possible, have another person drive the victim to the hospital. Remove anything from the body that may cause restriction (ring, shoes, watches, etc.) before the swelling begins.

Information for this article gathered from the UC Pest Control Center. Please contact the Farm Advisor´s office at cecalaveras.ucdavis.edu or (209) 754-6477 with your agricultural questions.

Ken Churches is the county Farm Advisor and director for the University of California Cooperative Extension.