I love to eat. I hate to eat my words. But I will admit when I’m wrong. Today I was proven wrong. There ARE copperheads in these neck of the woods. I have lived here 5.5 years and I have never seen a copperhead around here, let alone a copperhead in my yard…until this morning.
The day began as any other day. I walked the dachshunds a mile at 5:00 a.m. and followed that with a one mile run. I returned to hang clean laundry on the line out back. After prepping dinner in the slow cooker, I hurriedly rushed out into the yard in my running clothes to water the garden before returning to the house to finish a garden article that is due.
The cool water felt good on my bare toes, as flipflops are my frequent shoe of choice. After watering the raised beds farthest from the house, I returned to the spigot to switch the water to the hose for the patio raised beds.
Thirty minutes later I rushed back toward the house spigot, eager to get inside and switch gears to working on my article. When I say rushed, I mean I was jogging. The morning coffee was kicking in.
As I rounded the corner of the sunroom to the water spigot, my heart stopped. I froze. I had an instant fear in my stomach. Just a few feet away from me, laying in front of the rain barrel between me and the spigot was a snake. But not just any snake. We have snakes every summer. Mostly rat snakes. I call them the good guys. We even let one live in the brick wall of our sunroom. I watched one climb the tool wall in my shed looking for mice. After all, we have a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
I slowly backed up from 3′ to 15′ away from the snake, my stomach in knots, my eyes never leaving the snake. Even without my glasses, I knew what I was looking at, having grown up in rural Missouri and living much of my adult life in Arkansas. A venomous copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). Unbelievable. He very quickly and suddenly turned his head toward me and remained perfectly still, his eyes locked on my location. I was afraid to move. I was also afraid he would move. All I could think about was my little, old dachshunds, one still recovering from cataract surgery and unable to see up close. I could hear the next door neighbor loading his babies into the car to take them off to daycare. Babies and puppies…no place for a copperhead. Unlike most every nonvenomous snake I encounter, he did not quickly slither off, knowing he was safe. For the first time in years, I did not approach a snake to check his eyeballs to see if they were round or football shaped (the telltale sign of a venomous snake).
What to do? If I left to get the shovel or the gun, he might slither off and I knew I’d never find him in our well mulched and lushly growing garden. What if I missed and a bullet ricocheted off the bricks and back at me? I knew that my other neighbor, who works outside much of the day as I do, had just pulled his trash can out to the curb while I had been watering. I begin to yell out his name, but my voice would not go as loud as it could. I was scared. I repeated his name, but no reply. Still never looking away from the snake’s head, I slowly backed around the corner of the sunroom and ran inside to grab the phone and address book, shutting the door to the house, just in case.
I returned to my original stand-off position thankful to see he had not moved. I called the neighbor and explained. Luckily they were home and he rushed directly over with a hoe and BB gun. I explained that I was 80% sure this was a copperhead, it’s short, squat body and oddly-pointed head still facing me. Yes, he agreed, it looks like a copperhead. I added that I was not afraid of snakes and not into killing snakes and that we enjoyed them as part of the beneficial circle of life in our yard. The snake was frozen. Three shots from the BB gun and a swift whack with the hoe had once again secured the rear garden. At least for the moment. (Here is a story from Mt. Olive where homeowners found 4 in one day, last April 2016) After that we confirmed the identity which gave me relief (I didn’t want to harm a non-venomous snake) and worry (were there more?).
I have very few things I will not tolerate in the garden: black widows, brown widows, fire ants, rattlesnakes, and copperheads. I don’t live near water or I would add water moccasin/cotton mouth to that list. In their own habitat, venomous snakes play their own important role in the ecosystem. But not next to the house or in the garden and yard where bare feet and happy paws play and romp. I draw the line there. Having grown up in Missouri in an older house where we encountered snakes inside the home, I take no chances.
About a half hour after the neighbor kindly removed the snake to the back yard, I was brave enough to go out and take a few photos with my cell phone. I wanted to be sure of its identity as they are often confused with other snake species.
The snake’s body was still moving and ants were already beginning to enter the cavity. The pattern was typical as was the squatter body. CHECK.
I flipped the snake over to double check that the scales near the tail continued parallel, not plaited as you find in non-venomous. CHECK.
With hand shaking, I used a stick to move the slowly moving body up onto a concrete block, along with the head. The head had the heart-shape/arrow head-shaped characteristic of U.S. venomous snake. CHECK.
Finally, I got close to inspect the eyes, which were indeed football-shaped. CHECK.
Then I moved in just a bit closer. Whew. The Mississippi Museum of Natural Science has a great “venomous snakes of Mississippi” .pdf you can view. Linked here is a pretty nifty online snake identifying tool from the North America Brown Tree Snake Control Unit, from Texas.
This was my first venomous snake encounter in my Mississippi yard. A few years ago I did encounter a 6′ eastern diamondback rattlesnake at work. It was the second 6′ rattlesnake seen in ten days where we harvest and collect data. Working remotely with at least an hour’s drive to the nearest hospital, we had to take action. I was mesmerized and relieved, having never seen a living rattlesnake up close and personal outside of a zoo. I am not without heart though as I did cry for that beautiful, beautiful creature during the long drive home. But I was also terrified and immediately purchased snake waders to wear during harvest.
Now, I’m sure there are those would say to catch and release the copperhead out into the woods or to call an exterminator to have them remove the snake. That’s great. In an ideal world. But in the heat of the moment, not knowing where the snake will go, being alone, you do not have the luxury of such animal-friendly notions. You have to make the best decision for the safety of everyone. I made mine and I will live with it just fine.
I don’t think I’ll be changing the name of my address to COPPERHEAD ROAD, but the song is now going through my head, over and over as I take each step in the garden with greater care. Great song.
Stay safe in the garden and keep a look out for snakes, especially the venomous ones.
The Garden Maiden
P.S. One morning about a year ago, when my husband opened the front door to let the dogs outside, I heard him make a strange noise and he told me he thought a tiny copperhead had been laying on the porch, but it slithered off when he flipped the porch light on. I doubted it was a copperhead. But now, I’m not so sure.