Spring Activity: Snakes on the Move



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

  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.)