Watch out for snakes in August

Published 6:13 pm Tuesday, August 21, 2018

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While growing up, we always considered August land September to be the most likely time to encounter an angry copperhead, and there’s validity to that belief. Copperheads breed in late summer and these already-crotchety vipers seem to become even more so when they’ve got sex on their tiny brains.

Snakes have always been a favored topic of conversation among country folk, and the subject came up this past week at breakfast. What’s worse, a bite by a copperhead or cottonmouth (generally the only two poisonous snakes we encounter here), which is most likely to bite you, among other intriguing questions can open a snake discussion.

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Once the subject is broached, the conversation can go on for hours if you have the time, as first one, then another, tells a harrowing tale of “almost” getting bitten or, in some rare instances, actually being struck.

We were never actually bitten while growing up on the farm, but we did have encounters. The most dramatic was while my father was digging peanuts with an old one-row digger pulled by our trusty B-Farmall. My brother Philip was walking along the freshly dug row when a copperhead that had apparently gone through or under the digger struck his leg. He as wearing jeans and engineer boots — standard equipment for us — and the snake couldn’t get through the combination.

I seem to recall that we were able to kill the snake, but it spooked everybody in the field that day. That incident would have been in late September, I’m pretty sure.

On a hot and humid August day, we were riding on the tailgate of the old farm pickup driven by our father, going to a cornfield where we would be cutting the stops off of stalks to minimize the chance of storm damage as the stalks dried and became brittle.

As the truck crossed a tiny bridge, the truck passed over a really big copperhead, probably right at three feet long. Philip threw a top-cutting knife at the snake and actually hit it, but the snake slithered off as we jumped off the truck. I then looked down and saw small wormlike animals in the path. They were baby copperheads. Viper babies are live birthed rather than hatched from eggs buried by the mother.

We stomped more than a half dozen copperheads that day.

We were convinced growing up, as were our parents and grandparents, that the Copperhead is an aggressive snake that would rather bite you than not and we gave them no quarter in return.

There has been a lot written about how shy snakes are — including the Copperhead. We’re told that snakes would rather avoid humans than attack them.

But a North Carolina scientist weighed in on the debate some years ago. Dr. Peter Bromley, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension Specialist in zoology, did some research and while he agrees that if you leave snakes alone, you usually won’t get bitten, he did find the copperhead to show a bit different temperament.

Dr. Bromley experimented with Cottonmouth Moccasins, rattlesnakes and copperheads by putting them in a pen so the snakes had nowhere to go, and then walking in, wearing leather protective boots.

The Cottonmouths would open their mouths in a defiant warning and then — do nothing else. At some point, the snake will certainly strike, but not until it gives ample warning of its presence and dissatisfaction, Bromley concluded.

Basically, these snakes go through three phases when threatened — escape, warn the predator, and finally, strike.

The good doctor repeated the experiment with Canebrake Rattlers and got the same response, but apparently they’re harder to come by because he hasn’t fooled around with enough of them to declare conclusively that they are as passive as Cottonmouths.

Then came the surprise. Dr. Bromley started walking up to Copperheads in the confined space. The Copperhead, he found, just bypasses step two. If you get close, you’re going to be bitten.

Lo and behold, that’s what our father told us 60 years ago, and surely what his father told him. Ain’t science wonderful?

Actually, it is. Dr. Bromley’s research has merit, for while he wants people to avoid snakes generally, he warns that the Copperhead, in particular, should be given a wide berth.

Dr. Bromley — and other scientists — see the value of snakes to the environment and they point out that most people are bitten when trying to kill a snake. “Leave them alone” is their consistent advice. It benefits people, the snakes, and, by extension, the environment.

And August is a good time to be reminded of that advice.