Spare the snakes: Know these six serpents

By: - May 2, 2019 11:15 pm

The Eastern gartersnake, the official state snake. (Virginia Herpetological Society

Spring is so wonderful — blooming flowers, singing birds and visits from our friends, the snakes.

These reptilian Rip Van Winkles are up from their long winter naps and moving, looking for food and mates.

One just might find you by mistake.

It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Believe it or not, Virginia’s snakes — even the venomous ones — are not aggressive, experts say.

“Snakes are not out there waiting to ambush you,” said J.D. Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist, or reptile expert. “Cottonmouths are not out there looking to attack your fishing boat. It’s all a misunderstanding of their behavior.”

For example, a snake that appears to be charging you can be looking for an escape route, like bushes or water, and you’re in the way.

Snakes and people tend to surprise each other, sometimes with tragic results – usually for the snake. Virginia has 32 native snakes, and you can’t be expected the know them all. But you can take a big step toward protecting yourself and your scaly neighbors if you familiarize yourself with just six.

Three are venomous — rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads. They can indeed be dangerous if you get too close. The other three are harmless but common — watersnakes, gartersnakes and blacksnakes. They are the ones you are more likely to meet in the park or yard. And they are the ones most likely to get the garden hoe in cases of mistaken identity.

The serpentine six:

The eastern copperhead: Inhabiting virtually all parts of Virginia, the copperhead is one venomous snake you stand a decent chance of seeing if you spend time outdoors. Helpfully, the copperhead is distinctive, with a copper-colored or pinkish body marked by dark-brown blotches that lie across its back and sides like saddles.

Eastern copperhead. (Virginia Herpetological Society)

Like its venomous relatives the rattlers and cottonmouths, the copperhead has a triangular head. But some harmless snakes also have triangular heads, so, despite folklore, that’s not a reliable indicator of venom.

A copperhead bite can be painful, but it’s rarely fatal. In fact, only about two people per decade die of snake bites overall in Virginia, health officials say.

By contrast, flu and pneumonia kill more than 1,000 a year in this state. Highway crashes take 700 to 800 lives yearly.

Kleopfer said people killed by snakes are often trying to catch, kill or otherwise tangle with the creatures.

“The worst enemy of any snake is testosterone and alcohol, which also happen to be the primary cause of many venomous snake bites,” Kleopfer said.

Rattlesnakes: These creatures inhabit our western Piedmont and mountain regions, as well as swampy areas in the state’s southeastern corner. (There are no rattlers in most of Virginia, including the Richmond area, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society, a conservation and educational group.)

The highland animals are called timber rattlers . They are believed to be the inspiration for the colonial-era “Don’t Tread On Me” flags.

Timber rattlesnake (Virginia Herpetological Society)

The lowland snakes are called canebrake rattlers. (A canebrake is a type of swampy thicket — a likely spot for snakes but not people.)

If you see a rattle, you’ve got a rattler. Otherwise rattlers are hard to identify, or even spot, for they are camouflaged to near perfection, looking like so many dead leaves on the forest floor. The rattler’s colors can vary, but generally the body is a brownish-gray or brownish–yellow, with dark bands resembling chevrons.

Some timber rattlers are nearly black.

If you hear something like a rattle, you might have a rattlesnake — or a harmless snake, like a blacksnake, that can vibrate its tail against the ground when threatened.

The rattler prefers to lie quietly on the ground, awaiting a tasty mouse or other rodent. Hundreds if not thousands of people walking the Appalachian Trail and other mountain paths probably pass rattlers each year without incident and never know it.

This may come as news to some people, but it is illegal to kill a snake in Virginia unless it poses a threat to you or livestock. For example, you can legally do away with a copperhead in your garage or a blacksnake in your chicken house.

Illegally killing a snake is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

The northern cottonmouth, or “water moccasin:” A thick-bodied, venomous bruiser, the cottonmouth hangs out in the swamps and streams of far southern and southeastern Virginia. An isolated population lives near the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers in the Hopewell area.

Northern cottonmouth. (Virginia Herpetological Society)

Like live oak trees and Spanish moss, the cottonmouth is a Deep South symbol — and swamp movie staple —that is far more common south of Virginia.

Cottonmouths, too, can vary in color and pattern. Most are dark and muddy, while some are sort of clay-colored with darker bands. If you approach, they will often open wide, showing that white “cotton” mouth. That’s the cottonmouth version of “Don’t Tread On Me.”

Cottonmouths are often confused with harmless watersnakes, but here is a key difference: A cottonmouth swims with its head and much of its body out of the water — much like a floating inner tube. A watersnake keeps its head above water, but most or all of its body lies below the surface.

The Virginia Herpetological Society provides a good comparison of cottonmouths and similar-but-harmless snakes here.  

People tell a lot of tall tales about snakes, and the cottonmouth may be the most mythologized. For starters, cottonmouths don’t routinely fall out of 10-foot trees into boats. Those heavy-bodied cottonmouths are not great climbers; they prefer logs, stumps or low bushes. Watersnakes, however, will bask up to 20 feet above the water. That falling snake is almost certainly harmless, so don’t shoot a hole in your boat.

And then there is the tale of the unlucky person who dies after falling into a “nest” of biting cottonmouths. (This myth even made an appearance in the “Lonesome Dove” TV miniseries.) For starters, snakes don’t lie about in warm-weather “nests.”

“Every state has an urban legend of a water skier being attacked by a nest of cottonmouths after they fell in the water,” Kleopfer said. “That urban legend even occurs in states where cottonmouths don’t occur.”

Watersnakes: Watersnakes are nonvenomous swimming serpents.

Our most common one, the northern watersnake, lives along rivers, streams and suburban ponds across Virginia. If it’s not swimming, it’s basking on a leafy limb over water or lying about looking like a tree root. This is the creature that delights some visitors, and freaks out others, when it swims by in places like Richmond’s James River Park.

Northern water snake. (Virginia Herpetological Society)

Like the cottonmouth, the northern watersnake can vary in color.  It generally has brown or reddish bands divided by light-colored ones.

As it ages, however, the snake can get darker and duller. To those who don’t spend a lot of time snake gazing, it can look like a cottonmouth.

The northern watersnake’s head is not triangular but bullet-shaped. When it’s frightened, however, it can flatten its head into a sort of triangle or diamond shape — not a good look for a snake that wants to keep its head.  

Virginia has two other watersnakes — the brown watersnake  and the plain-bellied watersnake . You find them mainly south and southeast of Richmond.

(I sort of cheated when we said you need to learn just six snakes. More like six types of snakes.)

Eastern garter snake: Virginia political leaders made this resident of parks and yards the official state snake in 2016. It was a good choice if you like an ornery, wiggly, little guy that bites and exudes a stinky, poop-like musk when it’s scared.  

Eastern gartersnake. (Virginia Herpetological Society

Garter snakes can be brownish to greenish, with numerous little spots or checks.

But the garter has one big thing in its favor — a light-colored, head-to-tail stripe along its back (and usually stripes on its sides, too).

In Virginia, horizontal stripes usually mean the snake is harmless. Alas, some rattlers have rust-colored stripes along their spines.


Blacksnakes: This is really two species, the black rat snake (aka eastern ratsnake) and the northern black racer. 

Eastern (black) rat snake. (Virginia Herpetological Society)

As adults, both are totally or nearly all black, and shiny. Both are blotchier when young.

Both are common across Virginia.

Finally, experts say, snakes just want to be left along. If you see one, keep your distance, call the kids and get good photos.


Northern black racer. (Virginia Herpetological Society)

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Rex Springston
Rex Springston

Rex Springston was a reporter for the Richmond News Leader and The Times-Dispatch for 36 years. He lives in Richmond and contributes reporting on history, wildlife and other topics for the Mercury.