While the Native Plant Society folks and the Master Naturalists were working at the Williamson County Pollinator Garden at the landfill north of Hutto last week, several juvenile snakes were observed. The reaction was excitement and wonder. Many times when we see snakes around our home, our first response is to kill it and ask questions and identify it later. While there are venomous snakes in our area, most of the snakes around our homes are not dangerous to humans or their pets. In the United States there are only 4 kinds of dangerous venomous snakes: copperhead, cottonmouth, rattlesnakes and coral snakes. In Texas there are more than one hundred species of non-venomous snakes. There are only two to three deaths per year from snakebites, five to seven deaths from insect bites, and eight deaths from lightning. More people have become ill from cat bites than from snakebites.
Instead snakes can be assets to your yard. Snakes eat mice, rats, and insects. While I don’t mind having mice outside my home, they do too much damage when they come inside my home. Also, mice and rats can carry diseases. Snakes will help reduce the numbers of mice or rats that live near my home. In a Florida dog kennel, there were dozens of snakes living in the rafters and crevices. The workers decided that the snakes needed to be removed. When the snakes were removed, rats moved in. It took two years, hundreds of man-hours and thousands of dollars to remove the rats and repair the structural damage. In addition hundreds of pounds of dog food was eaten or contaminated by the rats.
When you see a snake, remember that the snake is truly more afraid of you. If left alone, the snake will choose to move away from you. When snakes are in your yard, they are looking for either a place to hide, a place to build a nest, a place to live, food, or a mate. Each type of snake has a different preferred food. Bull snakes eat mostly rodents but also birds, eggs, and some lizards. The hognose snake eats toads. The smaller snakes, green snakes, garter snakes, and ring-necked snakes eat insects. These small snakes can reduce a grasshopper population in a confined area in just one summer. Grasshoppers eat or damage landscape plants.
The snakes found at the Pollinator Garden were juvenile Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racers, Coluber constrictor flaviventris. Racers will struggle wildly, try to bite and discharge musk and waste matter. However, they are harmless to humans. They are active during the daytime and are found in native prairies, grasslands, pastures, brushy areas or along the edges of forest. They eat frogs, lizards, small, snakes, small rodents, birds, and insects. They have speed and agility to capture prey or to escape their own predators. Racers emerge in the spring and lay eggs in June and July. The clutch of 8-21 eggs is laid under logs, in rotten stumps or abandoned mammal burrows and hatch in two to three months. Young Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racers are strongly patterned. The coloring fades as the snakes age.
Why do snakes have forked tongues? Their tongues are part of their sensory input. It collects chemicals from the air or ground. The forked tongue can collect information from two places at once allowing them to “smell” in three dimensions.