Ahhh, spring. Trees are budding, wildflowers blooming, butterflies emerging and the grass is greening up.
And the snakes are crawling.
Calls about reptiles in backyards — and front yards, houses and attics — are popping up about as fast as oak catkins are falling. Ed Lessard, president of the South Texas Herpetology Association, stays busy answering the phone this time of year.
“I had five calls yesterday,” Lessard said on a recent warm day. The calls concerned other reptiles, too — frogs, lizards and tortoises — but snakes present the most concern to gardeners just venturing outdoors to trim and plant after a winter that left landscapes in need of work.
Spring is when snakes emerge from burmation, a reptilian equivalent of hibernation, said Tom Regnerof Town Lake Construction in Austin. “They wake up and establish new homes,” he said, adding he receives calls about snakes from March through August.
One small rattlesnake might have been hunting for a home or food when Kerrville resident Carolyn Roup spotted it under a trailing rosemary bush she was trimming. “I had had laryngitis for 12 days, but I managed to attract my husband’s attention,” Roup said. John Roup caught the snake with special tongs and put it in a plastic tub.
Lessard’s advice to people who see snakes: Do not panic.
“Snakes are very beneficial, so we tell people to leave them alone. Some people will. Some will prefer that we just come get it. If the snake is in the grass in their backyard, and they have small kids and are not sure what kind of snake it is, we will probably go.”
In addition to finding snakes in flower beds and around rocks, gardeners might be surprised to find the reptiles cozying up to the compost pile. If the pile is heating properly, snakes will crawl on top to get warm, especially on cool mornings, Regner said.
Deter them by surrounding the pile with silt fencing, a black fabric used for erosion control. It’s available in 2-foot heights at home improvement stores.
Snakes do not dig, so they won’t go under it, Regner said.
You also can put an electric wire around the pile. Snakes will recoil when they touch it.
Another option is to bury a 10-gallon, smooth-sided bucket in the ground near the compost heap. If a snake falls in, it won’t be able to get out. Use a stick to raise the handle and carry the bucket away.
Most of Lessard’s calls are about diamondback rattlesnakes and rat snakes, which resemble the rattler. The rat snake is grayish when young and turns black as it ages. Older rat snakes also sport a red hue between their scales.
“But if you see that, you are too close for most people’s benefit,” Lessard said.
The rat snake is one of few Texas snakes that climbs trees. It goes searching for birds, which make up about half its diet.
Lessard says if the snake is in a tree, some 20 feet high, it is harmless to people.
The “harmless” label is not a no-bite guarantee. Although a venomous snake has never bitten him, not so for rat snakes.
“I have gone out of a second-story window to catch one on a limb. I try to grab them by the head, but the Texas rat snake will get you quicker than you can get them.”
Lessard has not been bitten by a venomous snake in his 30 years of handling them. Snake catchers use special tongs or hooks, never bare hands. They put the snakes into large buckets with ventilated tops.
“It’s a matter of having respect for them,” he said.
Barbara Elmore is a gardener and writer in Fredericksburg. Her garden and home newsletter is available at www.digandletdig.com.
IF YOU SEE A SNAKE
Stop moving if you hear a snake, then back away from it slowly. An added warning: Rattlesnakes are learning not to rattle. “The ones that don’t get caught are learning to be quiet,” said Tom Regner, who removes snakes from residences in Austin.
Recognize venomous snakes. Texas has four types: rattlesnakes, copperheads, coral snakes and cottonmouth water moccasins. Residents in and around San Antonio are most likely to see the coral snake and the rattlesnake.
Clean up: Get rid of weeds, boards, and junk, which attract rats, lizards and frogs. “Snakes will go where there is warmth, shelter, and to look for animals to eat,” Regner said.
Removal: If you need help removing a snake, call the City of San Antonio information line at 311 or 210-207-6000. Or visit the South Texas Herpetology Association Web site, www.kingsnake.com/stha. STHA volunteers do not charge for snake removal. They do accept donations to cover transportation costs. In Austin, Regner can be reached through his Web site, www.batspecialist.com, to give estimates for snake removal.
By Barbara Elmore – Special to the Express-News
Web Posted: 04/10/2010 12:00 CDT