by Lorraine Cherry, Friends of West 11th Street Park
Neighbors have been reporting a lot of snake sightings in their yards lately. Many of these have turned out to be harmless hognose snakes, funny and interesting creatures that are described in greater detail below. While some people are interested in these reclusive animals, others are terrified of all snakes, assuming that there is a good chance that any snake is poisonous and therefore potentially deadly.
This is very far from the truth. In fact, you are 4 times more likely to be killed by lightening than by a snakebite. Of the approximately 34 kinds of snakes that have been identified in this part of Texas, there are only a few species that you are likely to see at West 11th Street Park or around your home and garden. And of these, most are NOT venomous.
Snakes are mid-level predators and feed on a variety of prey. Small snakes feed on many harmful bugs and insects. Larger ones eat mice, rats, and other small mammals that can destroy crops or damage personal property.
The most common snakes seen in and around Houston are all nonvenomous: marsh brown snakes, hognose snakes, earth snakes, garden/ribbon snakes, Texas rat snakes, and various water snakes. The marsh brown snake and garter/ribbon snakes are all medium-sized, slender snakes. Hognose snakes have turned-up noses, an adaptation that helps them dig for toads, their favorite food. When frightened or threatened, they will hiss, puff up and flatten their neck, and pretend to strike (looking a bit like cobras, which do not occur in our area). If the threat doesn’t go away, the snake will resort to another tactic – it flops over onto its back and plays dead!
The most common venomous species in our area is the copperhead. Copperheads are part of a subfamily of snakes called pit vipers, named for the heat-sensing pits in front of their eyes. This group includes the rattlesnakes (two species reported for Harris County; very rare inside the Loop) and the cottonmouth or water moccasin (also found in our area, especially near water). The other poisonous snake reported for Harris County is the coral snake, which is not a pit viper. This attractive small snake has yellow, red and black rings encircling the body. In the coral snake the yellow and red rings always touch each other. Thus the old country rhyme, “Red on yellow kills a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack.”
If you live in Texas, you should at least learn what these venomous snakes look like. Good pictures and descriptions, along with some helpful tips, can be found here: http://tpwd.texas.gov/education/resources/texas-junior-naturalists/be-nature-safe/venomous-snake-safety. In addition to these specific descriptions, however, here are some general pointers you can use to distinguish the pit vipers (copperheads, cottonmouths, rattle snakes) from nonvenomous species:
The head is somewhat triangular, and larger than the neck.
The pupils in the eyes are vertical, compared to the round pupils found in most nonvenomous species.
The heat-sensing pit is visible on each side of the head between the eye and the nostril. This is a sense organ that allows the snake to find prey (and even estimate its size and distance) by detecting heat.
Remember that these are just general guidelines. A few nonvenomous snakes (like the hognose snake) flatten their heads to appear threatening. Coral snakes (which are poisonous but are not pit vipers) have round heads and round pupils. Luckily, they are very easy to identify.
For all the snakes you are likely to see in your yard, remember that they are critically important to the balance of the ecosystem. They are also tremendously shy and reclusive; given the opportunity, they will quickly flee when they encounter you. Perhaps as quickly as you do!