Thursday, March 17, 2011

Snakes in the Home Landscape - Respect them from a distance

The sun is shining, the days are getting warmer and in my landscape, that means that I need to be a little bit more wary about where I reach and step.

Although I love most critters that share my yard and gardens, I will probably always get a little creeped out when I see snakes.

On the one hand, I appreciate them because they eat rodents and other pesky critters. On the other hand, they are sneaky little boogers that can camouflage themselves very well and I often get surprised by their presence. Although I find many of them beautiful, I would just as soon have them stay out of sight while they carry out their rodent control duties.

Here are some facts and tips to help create a peaceful coexistence between you and snakes in your Metro DC area landscape. The highlighted information is from the Virginia Cooperative Extension Document: Managing Wildlife Damage: Snakes

1) The Northern Copperhead is the only venomous snake in the DC area (photo above). The information on this page from the Virginia Herpetological Society will help you learn all about this beautiful but venomous snake.

2) Large snakes provide an important service by helping to manage rodent populations (e.g., rats, mice, and voles) that can cause serious economic problems for homeowners, farmers, and businesses. In fact, farmers used to pay local kids a small “reward” to go out and collect ratsnakes to release around the barn and farmyard as a way to keep rodents in check. Many of the smaller species feed on insects and other invertebrate pests common to our gardens and landscape plantings.

3) All native snakes in Maryland are protected by the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act. This means that native snakes cannot be killed without first acquiring the proper permit from the Department of Natural Resources.

4) It is illegal to kill any species of snake in Virginia unless it presents an imminent threat to one’s personal health and safety. Snakes are classified as nongame species and therefore are afforded full protection under existing nongame regulations, similar to all other species in this category.

5) Snakes can enter homes through very small openings. All possible snake entry places should be blocked. Galvanized screen can be used to cover drains or ventilators. Insulation can be used in cement cracks or where pipes go through outside walls. Places to concentrate your efforts would be where utility service (e.g., water, sewer, electric, telephone, cable) enters the home; where the clothes dryer vent exits the building; around doors, windows, and bulkheads to the basement or garage (including the gap under a large garage door); and where the house sits on its foundation.

6) Vegetation should be kept short around buildings. Mowed lawns near the house are less attractive to snakes and the rodents they feed on. A three-inch layer of pea-size gravel around the foundation will help plug small holes. Thin or reduce the amount of landscape plantings that exist immediately against the foundation of the home. Thick, lush gardens and layers of growth located against the home provide perfect cover and protection to both snakes and their prey.

7) To help keep snakes out of your yard, you need to take away anything that attracts their prey. This would include things like spilled bird seed, accessible pet food supplies, open containers of dry goods, and similar potential food items. Transfer all stored dry goods to metal or glass containers that cannot be chewed by rodents.

8) The most effective way to minimize or prevent a chance encounter with a snake outdoors is to modify the habitat such that the snake no longer can fulfill its basic life needs easily. Basic life needs, in this case, refer to food, water, cover, and space. By manipulating the habitat around your home, you can make it very difficult for a snake to survive there. Examples of actions that might be taken include: 

a. Eliminate, remove, or relocate brush piles, refuse, stored building products, stacked firewood, or other  materials that may provide useful cover and hiding spots for both snakes and the prey species they hunt. 

b. Thin out or selectively remove weedy or overgrown patches of vegetation that may harbor small prey animals such as rodents and provide cover for hiding snakes. 

c. In areas where small children or pets play, keep the grass well-mowed and maintain an expanse of well-cropped vegetation between the play area and the surrounding woods. Snakes usually do not like to be exposed in the open and away from cover. 

d. To create a snake-free play area, encircle the area to be protected with a fine-meshed (1/8- to 1/4-inch) fence, about 36 inches in height, that has been dug into the ground so that no gaps exist .

9) Although there are a number of commercially available products that have been registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use as snake repellents, research to investigate their effectiveness has yet to show any demonstrated success. Readers are reminded that use of any other nonfood-grade ingredients or “home-brewed” snake repellents made from chemicals for which an EPA product registration does not exist is a violation of federal law.

10) There are no chemicals or products registered or approved by the EPA for use as a means to kill snakes. Remember, it is illegal in Virginia to kill any species of snake and in Maryland to kill native snakes.

11) If you really don't like the thought of snakes on your property, professional wildlife control operators may be available to help you remove them.

12) If you are bitten by a snake, seek immediate medical attention. Current recommendations for proper treatment, provided by health professionals at the National Institute of Health, can be obtained from this link: Snakebites. Print the information and have it on hand, but always call 911 first if you think you may have been bitten by a poisonous snake.

For more information

All About Snakes in Maryland

10 Most Commonly Seen Snakes in the DC Metro Area

Snakes in Virginia

Managing Wildlife Damage: Snakes

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