Have you ever found a little brown snake sunning on your sidewalk who then suddenly arches up like it is ready to strike and you wonder to yourself if this is a him-or-me moment? I have.
Have you ever had a big black snake suddenly appear on a trail next to you and have to vault over it because you saw it late and while you’re up in the air you wondered if you can run fast enough to avoid inevitable attack? I have.
If you have too, you need to know your snakes better. Trevor Long, who works with Stormwater and Resource Protection for JCC, says there are only two confirmed venomous snakes found in our county: Copperheads
and Northern Cottonmouths
. Even these are not abundant, but they are here and need to be treated with caution. The Virginia Herpetological Society has a useful website to help identify local snakes and understand their characteristics. This article has hot links to that website associated with the snake names. Alternatively, you can buy a hard copy guide to Virginia’s snakes from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
In general, venomous snakes will have a triangular shaped head, resembling an arrowhead or diamond. Non-venomous snakes will have a rounded or oval head. Also, if you have time to look, venomous snakes have vertical slits as pupils while nonvenomous snakes have circular pupils.
Many people in Virginia call almost every snake with a pattern an Eastern Copperhead, so don’t assume a reported sighting is accurate. Eastern Copperheads have dark colored crossbands, usually shaped like an hourglass. The Eastern Copperhead is usually motionless and alert but will vibrate its tail when disturbed. The Society’s website has this recommendation: “While Copperheads are venomous they are very placid snakes that only bite if stepped on or otherwise threatened. If you see a copperhead, leave it alone and rest assured it will do its best to avoid you.”
The Northern Cottonmouth is a semiaquatic snake inhabiting lowland habitats such as swamps, marshes, ditches, streams, and forested habitats adjacent to wet areas. When out of the water, Northern Cottonmouths often lie under vegetation, in grasses, or under boards and other shelters. Adults will not venture far from water, but juveniles may disperse over long distances. Northern Cottonmouths are not aggressive and may remain in place when approached. They will flatten their bodies, vibrate their tails, elevate their heads about 45°, and open their mouths, exposing the white interior (this is the origin of their common name). They will not hesitate to bite if molested though.
A Cottonmouth Snake
Harmless snakes are far more common in our area. Trevor Long lists the following as among those you are most likely to encounter in New Town.
Snakes play a crucial role in our local ecosystem and are a valuable asset. Snakes get rid of many of the nuisance rodents we find in our yards. Take the Eastern Ratsnake, the most commonly seen snake in Virginia, for example. It has been documented to prey on mice, voles, squirrels, skinks, and rabbits (plus a bunch of birds you kind of like so I won’t list those.)
So if you see a snake on your property, what should you do? A. Grab a shovel and have it out. B. Go inside and refuse to come out until somebody removes it. C. Give it space. More often than not, answering C is sufficient, but if you lean towards B, be aware that it is not a county or state responsibility. The state website advises as follows: “Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries staff do not come to your home or property to remove snakes. ....the only other alternative is to contact a pest control company that advertises handling snakes.”
Have you ever killed two 6 foot black snakes on the same day you killed five crows? Yeah. Neither have I. But Dave Burket reports his great great grandfather did in 1890.