Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Snakes 101

Last month, in our quest to leave town, we met our neighbor who would take care of our dogs and chickens while we were gone. He had known the previous owner who also had chickens. He happily pointed out that the chicken eggs attracted a lot of snakes. “Really big snakes,” he said as he held his hands out as wide as possible. That information is of limited use because I really don’t care how big they are.

There are four kinds of snakes in the world:

1. Harmless
2. Venomous (and deadly)
3. The kind that squeeze you to death
4. Movie snakes (the kind that swallow you whole)

So I am much more interested in if the really big snakes are type 1 or type 2 from above. (I’m not worried about type 3 or 4 as I don’t think they are indigenous to this area.)

Time went on and despite being on high alert, we failed to see any big snakes around. Little did we realize that we were building an elegant snake mansion in our chicken yard with our burn pile. In a previous blog, I mentioned that we learned we should burn our burn pile as often as possible as you never know when a two-year drought will start. That lesson didn’t really stick with us and after spending several weeks pruning the yard, the burn pile was now about 9 feet high and filled with branches, leaves, debris and some old wood. Needless to say, these are the preferred building blocks of a snake den.

Another problem with the burn pile was that one of the chickens had built a nest in it and usually camped out there daily to deliver an egg. St. Pauli Girl had to reach deep into the burn pile to retrieve it. One day as she reached in, she noticed some red eyes staring back at her. Yes, it was a snake that was now annoyed that she had taken away his Grand Slam breakfast.

St. Pauli Girl was unfazed when she reported back to me.

“Was it a rattlesnake?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“How do you know?”

“It just didn’t seem like one.”

“Was there a rattling sound?” I asked while stroking my chin like a wise deep thinker.


“Whew, probably a rat snake,” I said.

We burned the burn pile the next day, all the while casting a weary eye for any flaming snakes that might come darting out. I would hate to be confronted by a burning rattlesnake. After that, I decided I needed to better educate myself about local snakes.

Turns out that the two snakes to be most worried about are the rattlesnake and the coral snake. The big difference (besides the rattle) is that the rattlesnake’s bite with its long fangs is more like a vaccination (except deadlier) while the coral snake’s bite is more like a root canal (except deadlier). The coral snake has smaller teeth and has to gnaw on you quite a bit to inject enough venom to kill you.

The bigger problem is that several snakes look like the coral snake with its red and yellow bands around a black body. Being able to identify it might save your life. This is especially true because the anti-venin is no longer produced.

So I enrolled in a snake class:

Teacher: The best way to remember the coral snake is “red on yellow will kill a fellow.” That means if the red and yellow bands are adjacent, it’s a coral snake.

Me: Great! Makes perfect sense.

Teacher: Or if you’re an optimist, there’s “red on black, friend of Jack.”

Student #2: But what if your name is not Jack?

Teacher: Try “red on black, venom lack.”

Student #3: Hmmm. I was taught “red on black, pat it on the back.”

Teacher: Legally, I can’t comment on that one. I would advise not touching the snake if you’re not sure what it is.

Student #4: What about “red on yellow makes you mellow”?

Teacher: Good one. Now that’s true, but it kind of underestimates the situation.

Student #2: Uh-uh. “Yellow on red makes you dead.”

Teacher: Nice!

Student #3: “Yellow on red, something to dread.”

Student #4: “Yellow on red, the encyclopedia you’ll wish you’d read.”

Student #2: “Red on yellow, call Dr. Bellows.”

Student #3: “Red on yellow, don’t say hello.”

Student #4: “Read on yellow, makes you yell ‘Ow!’”

Student #2: “Red on black, call Kojak.”

Me: Wait a second…

Student #3: Black on red, no need to have fled.

Teacher: Okay, I think ya’ll have got the hang of it.

Me: Red on yellow, set it on fire.

Teacher: What?

Me: I’m assuming it’s in our burn pile.

At final exam time, I was called to the front of the class. The teacher asked me how to identify a coral snake. The other students rolled their eyes that I was getting off with such an easy question. But as I looked around, all of the rhymes popped into my head at once. I panicked as I looked into the other students' faces. There were so many rhymes, they all ran together, and I couldn’t remember which colors were good.

Finally I said, “If it’s been gnawing on me, I’m headed to the M.D.”


  1. That was an enjoyable read. What part of the country do you live in?

  2. Thanks. We are in the central Texas hill country near Austin. I see from your site that someone might mistake the Western Shovel-nosed snake for a coral snake! I'm sure I'll write a post about scorpions pretty soon as well.