June 4, 2012

Snake encounters increasing, but numbers of snakes aren't

FORSYTH — A warm winter and spring probably contributed to more snakes being seen this year, but there’s no evidence that Georgia’s snake populations are increasing.

John Jensen, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said most of the state’s native snake species are actually losing habitat, a change that limits their numbers.

Reasons for the rise in sightings this year likely include snakes being more active during mild winters, people being outdoors more because of the warmer weather, and development adding roads, homes and businesses in wooded and other areas where snakes live.

“It’s putting people in closer encounters with snakes,” said Jensen, who works with the Non-game Conservation Section of DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division.

Fellow DNR biologist Thomas Floyd listed two other possible factors: drought that has some snakes on the move and public perception spurred by media coverage.

“The abundance hasn’t increased,” Floyd said. “People are just encountering them more often.”

What to do if you spot a snake?

• Try to identify it from a distance. Georgia has 43 native species, and only six are venomous. It is illegal to possess or kill most non-game species, including all non-venomous snakes.

• Do not attempt to handle the snake. Give it the space it needs.

• Remember that snakes are predators that feed on rodents, insects and even other snakes. Most species in Georgia are harmless. There is no need to fear non-venomous snakes.

If a clearly identified venomous snake is in an area where it represents a danger to children or pets, consider contacting DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division for a list of private wildlife removal specialists. Most snake bites occur when a snake is cornered or captured, prompting the animal to defend itself.

Non-venomous snakes such as the scarlet kingsnake and eastern hognose are sometimes confused with their venomous counterparts. Venomous snakes are often identified by their broad, triangular-shaped heads. Yet many nonvenomous snakes flatten and broaden their heads when threatened and may have color patterns similar to those of venomous species. Use caution around any unidentified snake.

You can reduce the potential for snakes near your home by removing brush, log piles and other habitat that attracts mice, lizards and other animals on which snakes prey.

For more on Georgia’s snakes, go to www.georgiawildlife.org/georgiasnakes, which includes a brochure that Floyd compiled on the state’s venomous snakes. Also check out “Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia,” a comprehensive reference edited in part by Jensen and Non-game Program Manager Matt Elliott that’s available at georgawildlife.org.

Snakes are part of the Georgia outdoors. Most native snakes are protected by state wildlife laws; the southern hognose snake and eastern indigo snake have additional legal protection as imperiled species.

To help conserve rare, endangered and other nongame wildlife in Georgia, buy or renew a bald eagle or hummingbird license plate or donate directly to the Wildlife Conservation Fund. This fund supports DNR’s Non-game Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve Georgia wildlife not legally fished for or hunted, as well as rare plants and natural habitats.

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