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Agriculture & Natural Resources Updates for Fannin & Gilmer Counties

Black rat snakes are large, powerful, non-venomous snakes.

Black rat snakes are large, powerful, non-venomous snakes. They are excellent climbers and are the largest snake found in Georgia. This species is protected throughout the state. Photo by J.D. Willson

This is the time of year when the County Extension office gets lots of calls about snakes. For some people, the thought of crossing paths with a snake evokes extreme fear, but the truth is that snakes are an ordinary and important part of the landscape in Georgia. Over the years, I’ve found that generally, the more people learn about snakes, the less they fear them. By learning about species identification, hopefully you will greatly reduce your fear of Georgia’s snakes and enjoy the outdoors more this summer.

First, while snakes are not guaranteed to be lurking under every rock, snakes inhabit every corner of the state and provide important ecosystem services, regardless if that ecosystem happens to be someone’s backyard or a pine forest.  Without snakes, Georgia would be overrun with rodents and other pests. Some species feed on warm-blooded animals such as rodents and birds, while others feed on amphibians and fish. Some smaller snakes even feed on earthworms, slugs and soft-bodied insects. In fact, one rat snake can eat two or three rats every couple weeks!

“But, what if it is a water moccasin?” This question is often asked when someone sees a snake in the water. Unfortunately, many people assume all snakes in the water are water moccasins and kill them “just in case.” Yes, some species of snakes, including the water moccasin, also known as the cottonmouth, are venomous and therefore potentially dangerous. However, of the 45 snake species native to Georgia, only six are venomous —the rest are harmless.

Most people dread the thought of a snake biting them, but at the first sign of danger or human contact, snakes prefer to flee. Most snakes strike in defense as a last resort. Of course, caution should be exercised around any snake. To reduce your chances of having a negative snake encounter, do not corner or try to capture the snake. Instead, if the snake is in a troublesome area, try spraying it with a water hose and allowing it a safe route to flee.

Non-venomous snakes are generally harmless, but anything with a mouth can bite. If you are bitten by a nonvenomous snake, simply wash the area with warm soapy water; a tetanus shot may be needed. As with any wound, keep an eye on it and go to your doctor if you suspect the bite is not healing properly.

If the snake is venomous, and you have been bitten – stay calm. Remove rings, watches, and tight clothing and try to identify the offending snake if you can easily do so, but do not put yourself at further risk or waste valuable time. Get to the nearest hospital or emergency medical facility immediately, even if you suspect a dry bite. The universal treatment for a serious snakebite is the use of snakebite serum, which should only be administered by a medical doctor.

Georgia Laws Regarding Snakes:

Many people believe that “the only good snake is a dead snake” and go out of their way to kill them. Harmless water snakes are frequently mistaken for cottonmouths and are killed “just in case.” Even the highly beneficial Eastern kingsnakes, which are strong constrictors that prey on a variety of other animals—even venomous species such as rattlesnakes and copperheads—fall victim to the zero-tolerance mindset.

Please know that killing non-venomous snakes is illegal in Georgia. Keeping native non-venomous snakes as pets also is illegal without the proper permits. Venomous snakes, although beneficial, are not protected. Again, only six species are venomous, so be sure you know which species of snakes in Georgia are venomous. If possible, simply leave venomous snakes alone – you don’t need to kill them just because it’s legal!

Lastly, no chemical controls have been proven to keep snakes at bay. To lessen your chances of encountering a snake, try to think like one. Look for sources of food and places to hide in your yard. Many snakes are secretive and can fit into very small spaces, so pay attention to details. If you lessen potential food sources, habitats, and hiding places, like tall grass and wood or brush piles, then you will more than likely reduce encounters with snakes around the house.

To learn more about Georgia’s snakes, visit the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division ­snake information page or contact your local County Extension office.

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