For many people, there’s definitely an “ick” factor connected with snakes. Whether you conjure up images from the Harry Potter books or movies like “Snakes on a Plane,” snakes are often the “bad guys” in our culture.
At the Park Authority we want to set the record straight, along with some help from our friends at the Fairfax County Animal Protection Police, and explain why snakes have an undeserved bad reputation.
Let’s start here. In Fairfax County, there is only one species of venomous snake that’s commonly found – the Northern copperhead. And get this right. The Northern copperhead is venomous – not poisonous. Venomous is a term applied to organisms that bite or sting to inject toxins. Something is poisonous if it releases its toxins when you eat it.
Most snakes in Fairfax County are non-venomous and pose no threat to people. Some that you might encounter in your neighborhood or local parks include the Eastern rat snake, Eastern garter snake, Dekay’s brown snake, Northern water snake and Northern ring-necked snake. These critters are important predators in our ecosystems and provide valuable pest control services to the community.
Now, about those venomous snakes.
Animal Protection Police advise that copperheads may be found basking in the sun on trails, in rocky areas and in stream valleys. They are most active between April and October and can be identified by their:
- Triangular head shape
- Vertical pupil
- Hourglass scale pattern that runs the length of their body
- Copper, light brown or tan color
- Yellow-tip tails on juveniles
Sadly, the police report that many of our non-venomous snakes are unnecessarily killed each year because they are misidentified as copperheads. If you’re not sure whether a snake is a Northern copperhead or a harmless look-a-like species, visit the Virginia Herpetological Society for some guidance.
According to the Animal Protection Police, you are most likely to encounter snakes:
- When they are crossing roads
- When they are moving through your backyard or through other transient habitats
- During breeding season (spring or fall) when they are moving to look for mates
- When they are basking near habitat edges (e.g., water bodies, forest lines)
Snakes are not out to get you. Most snake bites occur when snakes are handled or accidentally touched.
The police offer these seven tips to reduce your chances of a snake bite:
- If you see a snake, stop and keep a safe distance — give the snake room to move away on its own
- Do not try to handle snakes, as they may bite if provoked
- When walking or hiking, stay on trails, sidewalks and cleared pathways
- Wear boots or closed shoes and long pants when working outdoors or walking in wooded areas
- Wear leather gloves when handling brush and debris
- Use a flashlight if walking at night in areas where snakes might be present
- Keep dogs on leashes and pet cats indoors to reduce chances of them encountering a snake
If you’re still not crazy about the idea of seeing snakes around your home, the police suggest these three ways to make your home less appealing to snakes:
- Remove favored habitat near the home, including heavy mulching and large rock used in landscaping, wood and brush piles, debris and high grass. Mow grass and keep it short. Trim trees and shrubs away from your home and garage and clear overhanging vegetation that snakes could climb. Move woodpiles away from the home.
- Remove favored food sources. Move birdfeeders away from the house or stop feeding altogether. Seed on the ground may attract rodents that snakes prey upon. Clean up any residual spilled seed on the ground to reduce their food source. Make sure to properly store and secure trash bins to avoid attracting rodents that snakes eat. Feed pets indoors. If feeding outside is necessary, be sure to cleanup uneaten food right away.
- Inspect your home for openings and seal cracks and crevices around the house and foundation. Check outside around water pipes, vents, electrical service entrances, doors and windows for small openings and under sidewalks and porches. A 1/4 inch hole is large enough for some small snakes to enter.
If you find a sick or injured snake, contact the police non-emergency line at 703-691-2131 to be connected with the Animal Protection Police.
If you are bitten by a snake you believe could be venomous, seek emergency medical attention immediately.
For more information on managing wildlife interactions and resolving human-wildlife conflicts, the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline is available toll-free at 855-571-9003, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. This helpline is a collaborative effort between the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services.