by Nicole Rivard
While hiking with a friend in Hidden Valley Preserve in Washington, Conn. this spring, a friendly couple we came upon assured us that if we liked it there, we would love Paugussett State Forest in Newtown.
They were right. Paugussett did not disappoint when we visited at the end of August, with its stunning views of the Housatonic River and its stands of hemlock, white pine and cedar mixed with red oak, black birch and red maple. There are multiple trails to choose from in the upper and lower blocks of the forest—one even leads to Prydden Brook Falls, an especially inviting spot to take a rest or have a picnic.
We were surprised and fascinated when an arresting snake crossed our path along one of the trails. We gave it space, but when it stopped alongside a log we marveled over its striking copper-colored body covered in keeled scales and brown bands that were wide on its sides and narrow on the its back.
That night my friend texted me that we saw a copperhead, one of only two venomous snakes in Connecticut. (The other is the timber rattlesnake, which is on the state’s endangered species list.) The copperhead is often confused with the non-venomous eastern milk snake. Although the copperhead is venomous and the bite can be painful, it is not considered life-threatening to a healthy human.
I decided to post a photo that I took of the copperhead in a Facebook group I’m in called Connecticut Hiking and Outdoor Adventures just to give people a heads up. Immediately people commented that I should delete the name of the trail the snake was on because they feared someone might harm it.
“Be careful with telling people the location—for the most part people have great intentions and will heed your warning but others are jerks who want a trophy,” one person wrote. “It puts the snake at risk since they have the same dens for generations and generations.”
So I heeded his advice right away.
Another person wrote, “There was a spot at Gaffrida Park in Meriden where I would find copperheads along a cliff. Next time I went back the spot they were in was destroyed. Bummed me out.”
Well, that bums me out too. This experience got me to thinking how snakes overall have a bad rap and how unfair that is. Not only that, it’s detrimental to ecosystems.
Destruction of rocky, wooded habitat and summer feeding grounds, excessive removal by collectors and mortality at the hands of snake hunters and the general public have imperiled the copperhead so much that it is listed as an endangered species in Massachusetts under the state’s Endangered Species Act and is protected by law. Its dependence on traditional den sites used for many years makes this species particularly vulnerable to exploitation by humans.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife reports the copperhead is significantly affected by direct intentional persecution; they are killed out of a deep-rooted sociological fear. Too frequently, a copperhead coiled quietly in its natural habitat is a target of wanton killing.
The benefits of snakes
It is important humans change their attitude towards snakes. Killing them for fear of snakebites is problematic, as decreased snake population is detrimental not only for the environment, but also for humans,” notes a paper published in 2021 by the George Institute of Global Health.
Snakes are more central to ecology than most people realize. They act as both predator and prey. As predator, they can help keep frogs, insects, rats and mice in check. Snakes, in turn, are eaten around the world by skunks, mongooses, hawks, snake eagles, falcons, and even other snakes like the king cobra and eastern king snake.
Their absence can altar the balance of the food web.
I didn’t know there are more than 3,000 species of snakes on the planet and they’re found everywhere except in Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, and New Zealand. About 600 species are venomous, according to National Geographic.
Nonvenomous snakes, which range from garter snakes to pythons, dispatch their prey by swallowing them alive or constricting them to death. Whether they kill by striking with venom or squeezing, nearly all snakes eat their food whole.
That explains why snakes play a key role in dispersing plant seeds as well. A 2018 Cornell University study revealed that when rattlesnakes swallow rodents (who consume seeds), the seeds are expelled through excretion into the environment in an intact manner. As snakes have larger home ranges than rodents—rattlesnakes can travel as much as 2 kilometers in just a few days—seeds tend to disperse at greater distances from the parent plant.
This mechanism supports growth and survival of plant species without struggling for common resources of light, water and soil nutrients and hence essential for biodiversity and ecological restoration.
I asked Jenny Dickson, director of the wildlife division for the CT Dept. of Energy and Environmental Conservation, about some other things that might surprise people about snakes. She told me:
●Most snakes lay eggs (and provide no care to them eggs or young) but a few, like the copperhead, give birth to live young the way mammals do.
●The eastern milksnake got its name from the erroneous belief that they drank cow milk at night. They actually love to eat mice and rats that are often found in barns and around farms and that’s really why they were so often seen around farms. The “Y” shaped pattern on their heads is a great way to tell this extremely beneficial snake from other species.
●When it gets cold, snakes often den and enter something called brumation, which is the reptile version of hibernation seen in warm-blooded animals—this allows them to slow all of their bodily functions and survive the winter.
Looking out for snakes
One of the best ways to protect snakes is to leave them alone. They do not cause damage to homes or yards. If you suspect a snake in your yard is venomous, observe from a safe distance and call your state’s wildlife agency for advice.
To discourage snakes from living close to your home, you can remove hiding places for them and their prey, such as rock piles, wood piles, tall grass and brush; cracks in concrete walkways, driveways, steps and patios; and sheds or porches with space under the floor. Spilled bird seed, pet food and household garbage attract mice and rats, which attract snakes.
Snakes may enter homes through pencil-sized cracks or holes along a foundation, along unsealed wire or pipe conduits, or through basement doors and windows that do not fit securely. These openings should be sealed to keep snakes and other wildlife out of your home.
NEVER use sticky traps or glue traps to get rodents or snakes out of your house or yard.
“Not only do they get stuck, if they struggle it can literally peel their skin off their body. It’s really hard if not impossible to get them unstuck and “de-gunked” and they rarely survive,” Dickson said.
Some cultures would never think to harm a snake. Serpent deities are revered as symbols of fertility, rebirth, afterlife, medicine, healing and prosperity.
I remember as a kid being thrilled to find snakeskin that had been shed in the woods or in the backyard and thinking of it as some sort of treasure. I didn’t realize then that snakes shed a layer of skin in one continuous piece, a process called ecdysis, between four and 12 times a year to accommodate growth and get rid of parasites.
Humans that have it out for snakes can learn from that process. It’s time to shed beliefs and habits that put snakes in jeopardy and recognize their value and importance.