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Reduce snake presence by eliminating habitats
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Most snakes in Mississippi are not venomous and many help keep mice populations down, but very few people want reptiles slithering near family homes.
Instead of purchasing questionable repellents, homeowners should invest their time in cleaning up their yards and eliminating snake habitats.
Bill Maily, area wildlife agent with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said calls begin coming into Extension offices about snakes as the temperatures and outdoor activities increase. He said he receives just as many calls from city dwellers as he receives from rural residents.
"The first thing I tell callers is to just leave the snakes alone. Next, they should look around their property and try to eliminate tall grass, thick brush, wood piles or any place a snake might want to hide," Maily said. "If the snake is in their house, I suggest glue boards that they can put down on top of sheets to catch the snake."
After capturing a snake on a glue board, roll up the sheet to carry the snake outside for release. Vegetable oil will counteract the adhesive. Residents will need to determine where the snake entered the home and seal the hole, possibly with expanding foam, to ensure the snake or its friends do not re-enter. In some areas, animal control officers may be available to assist.
"People bring snakes for me to identify at my office -- sometimes alive, sometimes dead, sometimes whole and sometimes in a lot of pieces," Maily said. "Whatever condition the snake is in, it was never a good idea for anyone to get that close to it."
Ben West, Extension wildlife specialist, said most people want a "magic potion" to keep snakes away from their home, but none exists.
"The fear of snakes may influence people to purchase so-called repellents. But these products are not effective or registered, so the best method for reducing snakes is eliminating their preferred habitat around the area," West said.
"Callers are especially concerned about the potential that snakes in their yards are venomous," West said. "In most cases, the snakes we see in our yards will be harmless, but there are four groups of venomous snakes in Mississippi that are potentially dangerous: cottonmouths, copperheads, rattlesnakes and coral snakes."
Fortunately, snake bites in the United States are rare and deaths even much less likely to occur. West said 8,000 bites are reported annually nationwide. Half of those happen to people who are agitating, playing with or trying to kill the snake. The other half often result when a person reaches into a blind area, such as a firewood pile. Typically, only 15 people will die from snake bites each year in the United States.
In Mississippi, three of the venomous snake groups -- cottonmouths, copperheads and rattlesnakes -- are classified as pit vipers and have similar distinguishing characteristics. They have a pit, or hole, between their nostrils and each eye. Their eyes are oval shaped and their heads are triangular. Some nonvenomous snakes can also make their heads appear triangular, so that feature alone is not enough to determine the type. Their body markings or colors are not enough to determine species because each has similar nonvenomous cousins.
Coral snakes are found in south Mississippi and have distinctive markings of red and black stripes, each separated by yellow. It is often confused for the nonvenomous scarlet king snake, which has yellow bands with red and black bands together. Coral snakes have oval heads and round pupils, unlike the pit vipers.
"Coral snakes have a very toxic venom, but fortunately they are not very aggressive," West said. "In fact, very few snakes are aggressive. Even when cottonmouths are swimming toward you, it's more likely out of curiosity than aggression."
West said snakes can only strike within two-thirds the length of their body, so a 3-foot snake could reach up to two feet away. A person who is bitten should try to look for characteristics to determine the type of snake it is. Venomous snakes will leave two distinct puncture wounds, and nonvenomous snakes may leave marks more like scratches.
"Victims of venomous snake bites should try to get to the hospital as soon as possible. If you are not close to a hospital, wrap a constricting band between the bite area and the heart to slow down, but not stop, the blood flow. Do not apply a tight tourniquet," West said. "In general, it's better not to waste time with first aid; just head to the hospital."
Dogs and other pets that have unfortunate encounters with venomous snakes should be taken to local veterinary offices for treatment. Although the bite may not be fatal, treatment will provide a better chance for survival and a quicker recovery.
West warned people to be extra cautious if they encounter baby snakes. Species are harder to identify when they are young, and baby snakes may inject more venom than adults.
"People have a tendency not to fear small snakes as much as they do the larger ones, but they really should not let their guard down just because they don't look as threatening," West said.