Wild Secrets: Slither 'n Hiss

Wild Secrets: Slither ‘n Hiss

By Dick Zembal, Natural Resources Director   

Earlier this month on July 16, we recognized World Snake Day – an opportunity to celebrate snakes and raise awareness about these slithering reptiles. My last outdoor encounter with a snake was in my own backyard two weeks ago. Pursuit and capture were my immediate response but probably should not be yours if you never learned to properly identify snakes. The differences between a seriously venomous snake and a non-venomous snake in Southern California are striking (pun intended). However, that is not to say that non-venomous snakes never strike because many do, but the result of being struck by one of them is nowhere near as dire. Any snake can be handled if done so properly but the methods of handling are very different for some. However, please understand that nobody recommends that you handle any snake encountered in the outdoors.

The snake I most recently encountered was a two-foot gopher snake, one of the most common Orange County suburban snakes. Gopher snakes are usually slender but bulkier with age, two – four feet long, with a tail that narrows to a point but sometimes blunted. Color varies, but generally yellow, tan or cream with dark brown or black blotches on the back and sides, and round pupils. These are great animals to have in one’s yard. As the name implies, they eat many gophers along with other small mammals, occasional reptiles, and birds.

My reasons for handling this animal were to relocate it to the back slope where gopher activity is high and to see how easily it would handle. Larger gopher snakes can be quite ill-tempered but usually show their aggression as you approach. They will coil, rattle their tail vigorously enough that it is audible if in dry leaves, flatten their head, making it look bigger, and hiss loudly. When handled, they are best picked up well back from the head and supported with open hands, moved swiftly as needed hand under hand to accommodate the snake’s movement. It also helps to have another person quite close to distract any aggression away from the hands of the handler – in this case, my wife who first spotted this animal.

I have seldom been struck by a snake while handling it. More often, it is my unwary companion, past friend, or student during a field trip. The gopher snake is a constrictor and like many Orange County snakes, it has numerous tiny teeth that are slanted back for holding prey while swallowing a mouse or other small creature whole. The worst result of a non-venomous snake bite is the loss of a tooth or two by the snake. The tiny wound they might inflict on an arm or hand should be washed thoroughly to avert potential infection but most bites I have received were bloodless.

My only other yard snakes in Orange County have been California king snakes, beautiful chocolate brown and yellowish-white banded animals up to four feet long. In the deserts, these animals are jet black and white. Some individuals in many populations are striped with broken bands. Like the gopher snake, king snakes are constrictors, egg-laying, and called “king” because other snakes are amongst their varied dietary fare, including the occasional rattlesnake. Handling a wild king snake is slightly different. I have never been bitten but they will often excrete a foul-smelling musk that persists well into the dinner hour. So, the trick with handling this species is to point the far end of the snake at your companion.

Neighbors have had a third snake species in their yards, the southern pacific rattlesnake. These are seriously venomous and a potential danger to people and pets. Most recently, I used a branch and walking stick to move a youngster off a hiking trail and back into the creek bottom whence it likely emerged. Commonly associated with riparian areas, these are regular inhabitants of the Prado Forest. Large individuals are mostly out and about in spring and summer, some in search of a mate. Rattlesnakes are mostly ambush-hunters that wait along trails for potential prey. They are well camouflaged, generally dark colored to blackish in some locales with a gray, olive, brown background, and darker botches, the larger of which narrow from top to the animal’s sides, roughly resembling diamonds. The poison glands bulge on the back sides of the head, giving it an inflated diamond shape, and their pupils are vertical. They grow to about four feet in length and sport a rattle on the tail end that is used to warn larger organisms away so neither they, nor a bungling intruder endure injury.  They can land a strike about a third of their body length away but also move quickly when agitated. I try to stay far enough away to leave them unagitated. However, on a recent vireo count in Riverside I wandered too close to a large, unseen red rattlesnake, and it hissed loudly enough at the intrusion to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

The other, more unusual snake of the Prado Wetlands is the red-sided garter snake. This subspecies of the common garter snake is only found near water along the coast of Southern California. Because its current distribution is very spotty, and many historic sites are no longer occupied, it is considered a sensitive species by state and federal wildlife agencies. These snakes hunt frogs and other small animals of the wetland edge. They are slender creatures, silver to olive underside and dark markings on the sides with red to orange flank spots or bars. The stripes are gray, greenish-yellow, one on the back and one on each flank that blend into the ventral color, and the tongue is red. How cool is that!

OCWD manages an island for nesting seabirds in Burris Basin, so nesting birds, eggs, and young abound seasonally, attracting local predators including snakes. The only snake I have ever seen there, along the walking trail is the same species we observed on the island, the California striped coachwhip. This is a long, slender animal that is most active during the day. There were at least two individuals on the Burris Island last year, one of which was captured and relocated to Prado. These are large-eyed, fast-moving, sight-hunters that chase down their prey and pin their small victims against the ground rather than constricting them. Common in Prado too, they are excellent climbers with birds and nest contents among their seasonal fare.

There are about 30 different kinds of snakes in Southern California, and I encourage you to learn more about them. Ophidiophobia is the fear of serpents, apparently one of the more common of the phobias and something with which innocent children can deal in a flash when given the opportunity. At a very young age, my son showed slight hesitancy when I handed him a rosy boa. Accordingly, by age 10, he had seven different species of snakes in his room. Sometimes it takes just a bit of the right kind of encouragement.  If you are an ophidiophobiac and want help, simply ask an expert!

In past years, many youngsters attending OCWD’s Children’s Water Festival – now known as the Youth Environmental Summit – overcome their misgivings, when for the first time they hold one of these docile beauties. This year, we filmed a video and showcased it during the virtual event, which you can view here. Snakes have their place in the natural world. Without them we would be overrun by rodents. Consider yourself lucky if they are in your yard too.