Not To ‘Herp’ Too Much But…

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener

As I prepared to step off the porch to fertilize my growing garden of herbs, there was a brief moment of “oh-oh”. There was an adult milksnake lying in my front yard.

Now I am not afraid of snakes but the first time I spot one there is always that startled “oh-oh” moment.

Some may confuse the non-poisonous milksnake with a poisonous copperhead. Both have copper-bronze color markings along the length of their body but the milksnake has a vivid black outline on each of its bronze markings.

Some people believe all snakes may be poisonous and it is better to be safe than sorry so their attitude is “kill it.” This possibly is a religious holdover attitude as a result of the Old Testament tempter of Eve. For his cunning and conning the first woman into disobeying and eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent was commanded to crawl upon its belly all of its life.

Genesis 3:15 the Almighty said, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman…” which may be why my Aunt Clarice’s reaction to learning someone has found a snake is to “get the hoe and kill it.”

Perhaps yet another misinterpretation of the Scriptures.

And that is too bad because there are only four poisonous snakes found in the Hoosier state. The rest eat those things that are pests to us.

The Northern Copperhead is the most common venomous snake you’ll find in Indiana. It can get up to 36 inches long and has a tan body with the head being reddish-brown. This one you’ll find in dry rocky terrain, closer to the ridges. They will nearly always remain quiet or seek to escape. A severe poisoning of humans from a copperhead bite is unusual, and the snake has a very diverse diet.

The Timber Rattlesnake is the largest rattlesnake species and can grow up to 6 feet long. Its color is variable from sulfur yellow to a dark gray. Like the Copperhead, it lives on high dry ridges, mostly in oak-hickory forest with open areas. They eat mostly mammals with chipmunks being their favorite.

Massasauga Rattlesnakes rarely grow more than 30 inches long but it is one of the nastier ones. Its venom is more lethal than other rattlesnakes. Eighty-five percent of its diet is mice.

While I have been blessed to be caretaker of a woodland wilderness for over 17 years, I have never seen a poisonous snake in the dry ridges shaded by oak and hickory trees. And there are plenty of mice and chipmunks to attract them.

The Cottonmouth, the only venomous water snake in Indiana, is an extreme southern snake. It can grow up to about 43 inches, likes to live in swamps, sluggish streams and shallow lakes. It will eat any vertebrate it can plus carrion. They are found in only a couple of places in Indiana along the Ohio River in Harrison County and up near Jasper. These are very small colonies.

To identify a poisonous snake, the first thing is you look at the head. There will be a sensory pit between the nostrils and the eyes. Nostrils will be on both sides of the head, and the pupils are vertical. (Not that Aunt Clarice is ever going to get THAT close.)

If you want to stay poisonous snake free, feel relieved to visit these counties where none have been found: Hancock, Henry, Rush, Wayne, Vigo, Sullivan, Knox, Gibson, Clay, Daviess and Marion counties. But I am not so sure about the statehouse.

(Joe Whitfield, a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department, contributed to this column.)