Wildlife: Copycat snakes often killed in mistaken identity

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The only good snake is a dead snake." Though I've never heard my wife utter these words, I know she thinks them. And so do many others, especially this time of year.

Contrary to popular belief, however, most backyard snakes are harmless and beneficial.

Garter snakes and ringneck snakes are small and often fall prey to hawks, owls and even larger song birds.

Because of the size of the black rat snake (up to 6 feet) and eastern milk snake (up to 4 feet), they are the most alarming species found in backyards and are among the few whose bite might break the skin. But they earn their keep by eating mice, chipmunks and other small mammals.

Milk snakes of all ages and young rat snakes might be the most terrifying of the harmless backyard snakes. Both mimic copperheads, which are venomous but not deadly. Each year, countless juvenile rat and milk snakes are killed in unfortunate cases of mistaken identity.

Venomous pit vipers such as copperheads have triang-ular heads, vertical pupils and prominent heat sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils. At a glance, milk snakes and copperheads can be especially confusing. The basic color of each is rusty brown, but the copperhead usually has a much richer copper tone. Both species have dark bands that cross over the back and reach down the sides. The milk snake's "saddles" are bordered in black and are widest across the back. The copperhead's saddles, on the other hand, are most narrow on the back and wider on the sides. They have an hourglass shape.

Furthermore, a copperhead's belly is unmarked and cream colored. A milk snake's white belly is marked with black squares that create a checkerboard effect.

The markings on young rat snakes are less distinct, but first impressions can be imprecise.

I admit these key characteristics cannot be seen from a distance. But if you're close enough to hack a snake with a hoe, you're close enough to detect head shape. I understand the desire to rid backyards of venomous copperheads, but I'm certain many of the "copperheads" killed each year are milk snakes and juvenile black rat snakes.


Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


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