Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Snakes 101: The Lab

As I walked toward the chicken yard on Saturday to get my morning chores assignment, St. Pauli Girl walked quickly from the other direction.

“There’s a snake in the hens’ nest,” she said, brushing by me. “And it’s a big one.”

Like the buzzards annual return to Hinckley, Ohio, it’s officially spring in central Texas when you see the first snake in the yard. This might be unnerving to the newcomer, but you get used to it. And snakes like chicken eggs. We have chickens. Hence, we have a lot of snakes.

One time as I walked down the driveway to get the morning newspaper I noticed a snake in the middle of the driveway. His head shot up and he glanced at me. We stared at each other for a second until I got the vibe that he was just saying, “We cool?”

I nodded, and he quickly slithered across the driveway.

Another time I was wandering through the backyard when a dark shadow came over me, then I felt a whoosh go by as a large hawk dove to the ground and carried away a snake about 20 feet from me. Circle of life.

Last year, we encountered a snake in the feed bin in the hen house. The lid had a hole in it just big enough for a snake to squeeze through. St. Pauli Girl swore it was a rattlesnake because she could hear a thumping from inside the box. She handed me a hoe and told me to kill it when she knocked the lid off. I think she expected me to stand there like a hockey goalie determined not to let anything get by, when in reality I stood there like I was at the starting line of the 100 meter dash. I’m pretty sure I could have beaten Usain Bolt at that moment.

She knocked the lid off, and a long thin black snake slithered out. But instead of offering itself to the hoe, it went the other way into the shed next door. Since we determined it wasn’t a rattlesnake we just let it go, and I silently vowed to never go into that shed. Ever since, that has been our Modus Operandi: unless a snake is venomous or stealing eggs, we just ignore it.

St. Pauli girl finally came back with a flashlight and a hoe which she handed to me. We stood at the hen house entrance shining the light into the nest which was a little too far away to peer into. “Is it a rattlesnake?” she asked.

I’ve seen enough horror movies to know I didn’t want to get within about 50 feet of it. “Well, I don’t hear a rattle,” I said helpfully.

“Let’s get the lid, throw it on top then haul him off,” St. Pauli Girl said. She pointed to the lid half buried under leaves in the pen next to us.

I slowly made my way through the pen checking carefully for copperheads in the dark corners. The irony of getting bitten by a different, deadlier snake did not escape me. I picked up the lid which had a giant hole in it and tossed it aside.

“Maybe we can find something in the garage,” I suggested as I ran toward the garage.

I searched all over the garage but could not find anything useful. When I came back to the hen house, St. Pauli Girl had already put an ill-fitting top on the nest and weighed it down with three bricks. Before I knew it, she was carrying the nest out of the hen house.

“Where are you going?” I asked, ready to hold open a door or gate wherever she needed.

“To the car.”

I ran to the house to get the keys. “I’ll drive,” I said as the chicken yard gate slammed shut in her face.

We loaded the nest in the back of the car and added another brick to the top for good measure. I got in the driver’s seat while St. Pauli Girl sat in the front passenger seat.

“Um, aren’t you going to sit next to it and make sure the lid doesn’t come off?” I asked.

“Yeah, so if it’s a rattlesnake I’ll be right next to it when the lid comes off?”

She did move to the backseat so she could at least keep an eye on it.

“Just so you know, if it escapes, I’m abandoning the car to the snake and running home,” I said. “Which direction do you want me to go?”

“How about to the neighbor who guns his obnoxiously loud pick-up down the road every night at 4:00 a.m.?”

“A good idea but the snake can probably find his way back to the hen house.”

I drove about 3 mph to the entrance of our subdivision where there was a large grassy field. We parked behind a tree so no one could see what we were doing. We set the nest on the ground then threw off the bricks one-by-one. St. Pauli Girl grabbed the hoe to push the lid off while I got back in the car and locked the doors.

After the lid came off, the snake slowly poked its head up then slithered out and into the tall grass. In its midsection, I could see the large lump where it had swallowed one of the chicken eggs.

“Is it a rattlesnake?” St. Pauli Girl asked from behind the car.

“No, it’s a corn snake. About 3 or 4 feet.” (I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve learned to recognize different snakes over the last three years! Assuming I get close enough to recognize them.)

We put the nest back in the car then drove home.

“So how was it that I was the one that had to carry the snake everywhere?” St. Pauli Girl asked.

“Well, if a rattlesnake ever bites and kills me, we needed to make sure you could handle these things after I’m gone. Plus, you’re the one that wanted chickens.”

(The snake in the picture above is actually the second snake we found later in the hen house. The first one was much thicker. Going to be a long spring...)

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