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Spring Activity: Snakes on the Move

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We are getting to the time of year where snakes are going to start moving (or, in some places, already have). This is a time when many human/snake interactions occur. So why are they moving and what should you do if you encounter or are bitten by a snake?

Why they are moving

Snakes and other reptiles are ectotherms (some refer to this as cold-blooded). This means that they rely on external sources of heat, like the sun or a patch of shade, to regulate their body temperature. That being said, in the winter months, these animals have no way to keep warm and often take shelter in a variety of denning areas, such as rocky outcrops, burrows, or stumps where ambient temperatures are warmer than on the surface. Some snakes overwinter alone but many snakes will overwinter communally, with many individuals of the same or different species sharing the same overwintering site, or hibernaculum. This is not really a form of hibernation, but rather of time of inactivity. During this time, snakes rarely eat as they are not expending much energy.

As winter turns to spring and the outside temperatures get warmer, the snakes start to become more active. It begins with basking. Initially, snakes typically will not move far from their hibernaculum, but will stay rather close and bask in sunny areas, sometimes retreating back into the hibernaculum in the evenings when temperatures cool. As the temperatures become consistently warmer, the snakes will begin to move away from their hibernacula to their summer habitat. There are a variety of reasons snakes move away from their hibernacula. Some snakes may move to locate foraging areas, to find mates, or to give birth. While in their summer habitats, which can be widely distributed, they will make relatively shorter movements, although in many rattlesnake species, the males will move extensively during the late summer in search of females for mating. Snakes begin moving back to their hibernacula in the fall. In many species, snakes are very consistent in returning to the same hibernaculum year after year, but some do not and search out new areas to overwinter. Many human/snake interactions occur during the spring and fall when snakes are moving from one seasonal habitat to another.

What to do if you encounter a snake

If you encounter a snake in the wild – simply leave it alone. Snakes are generally shy animals, if you do not appear to be a threat, odds are the snake will not interact with you and you can both go your separate ways. Contrary to popular myth, most snakes will not chase you. On the other hand, these encounters can be very rewarding, and give you the opportunity to observe these species in their native habitat. Most snake bites occur when people try to move, kill, or otherwise harass snakes, so if you choose to observe these species when you encounter them, please do so at a respectful distance for the safety of you and the snake. If you find snakes in your yard, let them pass through. If it is a venomous snake, keep children and pets out of the vicinity until it has moved on. Do not attempt to move or kill these animals. Snakes belong in our environments, however, if snakes in your yard are a problem for you, try to determine what is there that attracts them, such as cover, a water source, or abundant prey (like rodents). Removing these attractants is the best way to encourage the snake to move on. On the other hand, if you are a snake enthusiast and want to attract these species, try placing sheet metal, rock piles, scrap metal, and other debris around your property. This provides valuable cover areas for snakes which will promote their occurrence on your property.

  Enlarge PhotoTimber Rattlesnake

Reducing risk and what to do if you are bitten

It is very important that you learn to identify the snakes in your area. In the rare event that you are bitten by a snake, identification will help determine if you need medical attention. To reduce the risk of snake bite, be observant when placing your hands in or under rocks, wood, or in crevices. Watch where you are walking when in areas where snakes occur and during the seasons when snakes are most active and choose footwear that is practical for the areas you are in (i.e. boots as opposed to sandals). Supervise children and pets when you are in areas where snakes occur and teach your children to leave snakes alone. In the event that you are bitten by a venomous snake or cannot identify a snake that has bitten you, stay calm and seek immediate medical attention. Remove any restricting clothing or jewelry around the bite area and if possible, keep the bitten area below the level of your heart.

Statistically speaking, snake bites are rare. Do not let the fear of a human/snake interaction keep you from enjoying the outdoors. If you promptly seek medical attention (at least in North America), you may be at just as much risk riding to the hospital as you are from the snake bite itself. Most snake bites can be prevented with common sense and awareness of your surroundings. It is important to understand that these species are vital to our ecosystems. Snakes are something to be respected, but not feared.

(Please note: This information is general and based on North American snake species. Not all snake species, even within North America, may follow these activity patterns.)