Tag Archives: Texas naturalist

Snakes Alive Part 2, and My Brother’s Early Embalming Efforts

I’m not a crazed snake handler. I don’t long for a pet snake. I’ve never even rehabilitated a snake. I tried once. I found a snake twisting itself in knots to scale the bird bath, a green grass snake. There was a dry spell at the time so I realized it was trying to reach the water. I picked it up and put it in the water. It seemed to soak it in, lolling in the water, opening its mouth. I then placed it at the edge of the wooded area where it could get under cover and safe from the cats. I walked away but heard a PIFTH and turned up in time to see a hawk scoop the snake up and carry it away. What could I do but let nature take its course?

I learned early to educate myself about things I was afraid of, the things I was constantly coming into contact with – snakes, bugs, arachnids. I grew up in the country with brothers and a lot of snakes, bugs and arachnids.

Many years ago, while traipsing through the woods in Cedar Hill, Texas I came close to stepping upon numerous Copperheads. They were everywhere. It was Springtime when they gather in clusters to mate and when they are especially irritable at being disturbed. More recently a Copperhead brushed against my hand when I was moving a rock in my Sugar Land garden. With I say “brushed” it isn’t with the same as coming into contact with something furry that the word “brushed” implies. Instead, it was more the sensation against the skin of something smooth, dry, and weirdly cold. I stood back and watched it slither out of sight, and caught my breath before slumping to the ground.

I’ve had numerous encounters with rattlesnakes – also in Cedar Hill, Texas. A wild and wooly place, full of dry limestone shelves which make good hiding places for snakes and scorpions and tarantulas. I sighted a three-foot long canebrake rattlesnake while walking along a sandy creek bottom in Brenham, TX. Canebrakes are very aggressive and highly dangerous. This one paid no attention to me at all. It was one of those shuddering moments of full clarity when every nerve feels exposed.

I’ve seen more dead rattlesnakes than live ones. Once my brother, Jon, brought home the stiffening body of a good-sized timber rattler he’d killed at the cow pond behind our house. He arranged its body on a board, super-glued it down and injected it with formaldehyde. (I have no idea where he got the formaldehyde – isn’t that illegal? And hypodermic needles?) And thirty years later, he still has the shriveled thing, coiled in a striking position, mouth open and fangs extended. Did he realize how dangerous those fangs were? Dead snake venom doesn’t lose its lethality.

Not bad for his first attempt. Generally he would skin the snakes he killed and salt the hides, that is he would scrape the hide free of flesh and rub salt into the wet side, over and over until the skin was dry but supple. He still has the six-foot hide from a diamond-back water snake – the thing is as big as a boa constrictor.

Most snake stay clear of humans. Pit vipers can, with sensitive heat seeking “pits” at the front of their head, determine the size of the warm-blooded creature before them. If they aren’t in danger of being stepped on or have not already been stepped on they really would rather not waste their poison on something too big to eat. Snakes get away from any contact with humans as soon as possible.

With one exception.

I save the scariest for last.

Like the diamond-back rattlesnake, the water moccasin or “cotton-mouth” (named for the white mouth-lining that it displays when threatened) grows into a sizable snake. They are both thick bodied snakes, with large fangs and a good quantity of poison. And like the diamond-back rattlesnake, the poison of the cotton-mouth not only kills muscle tissue, it also destroys blood cells and damages nerve cells. These are snakes that can kill humans.

Now, with a rattlesnake you have an early warning system. Their rattle is unlike the sound of the baby’s rattle. It is more like a buzzing not much different – though maybe louder – than the sound of cicadas. But water moccasins do not have an early warning system, unless you count their smell. Because they do smell especially when disturbed. They smell like death.

The water moccasin swims with its head above the water. It moves through the grass and tall weeds the same way. The reason is though a pit viper, they use their sight to much greater advantage than any other snake. In this way they remind me of what I’ve read of the black mambas of Africa.

Another thing different about these vipers is that they eat dead things. Maybe that’s where they get the smell they carry.

It is my experience  water moccasins are scarier than any other snake because they do not run away. Every other snake will disappear, or steer clear of humans. No so the water moccasin. They not only do not back down but will approach. I can’t attribute them some human trait like curiosity to explain this behavior. There are only two explanations. Either they are so prehistoric in their “programming” that they have to follow their path of migration, or they are an aggressive snake.

When we moved to the house next to the muddy-bottom Oyster Creek, we didn’t count on the water-moccasins. The first week after we moved in two of them tried to get into the garage, at the same time. They would not back down. I wasn’t sure they were water-moccasins because I’d never seen one up close so I carefully draped them on the end of a shovel and flung them into the woods nearest the water. After several more encounters I know now those two copper-eyed reptiles were fully grown water moccasins. And the thought give me the creeps.

They come in different colors as per their age. Young ones have diamond-back markings and are as lethal at birth as the adults. The older the water moccasin gets the more the markings on their back fade to dark brown. Their sides retain some markings that fade to cream on the belly with a little yellow sometimes along the length of the body. Their eyes, like other pit vipers, have a slitted pupil, which squeezes into near invisibility in the sun.

Many more water moccasins tried to enter our home. The strange behavior of the cats warned us. It was a particular action they did. Obviously spooked, the three of them jumped like cat popcorn.  I would find a water moccasin curled to strike behind a potted plant or the garden hose. I killed quite a few. I didn’t just kill them. I chopped off their heads. People have been bitten by dead water moccasins. Why is this? Because these snakes are programmed to strike. It’s primitive. It’s primal. I didn’t make this up because every one of my headless water moccasins continued to “strike” with their bloody stump, the head opened and closed its mouth with fangs dripping venom.

There are two things that give me the willies – the large palmetto bug (a giant cockroach common in the south) and the water moccasin. The willies is defined as “the shivers”, the “heebie-jeebies”, and a shuddering fear.


Here is a picture of me with a headless snake, which is still trying to strike at me.


Snakes Alive! Part One

I miss snakes. Since moving to the city, I haven’t seen but one snake. When we lived in Sugar Land I spotted them weekly and sometimes more often. The dearth of big city snakes hasn’t always been the case. Accounts of the Allen brother’s landing in the swamp included malaria-carrying mosquitoes and poisonous snakes amongst the many dangers. But we’ve become civilized, no more cannibals or quick-sand (except perhaps at the downtown courthouse) and not many snakes.

Growing up in South Houston I enjoyed catching copper-colored grass snakes. I would try to keep them as pets. “Try” because my mother would figure it out and empty my catch-jars. My brothers and I would catch glass-eels, and pipe-fish at the back-water fishing cabin near Galveston, and at home we would find flat-worms under rocks, the kind we would later cut up in biology class. And there were the earthworms.

Once I listened to a hysterical woman describe the reason she could never garden. “It’s those pink snakes everywhere.”

We had good healthy (earthworm laden) soil in Sugar Land.

Earthworms are God’s gift. If it weren’t for them the world would stink something fierce. They eat organic material and turn it into pure, sweet-smelling earth. Thank God for them!

Unlike the flatworms, they do not regenerate if cut in two. They die. An earthworm is intricately made with a gizzard for grinding food because like chickens, they have no teeth. They have a five chamber heart with red blood. Their liver takes up over three-quarters of their body, their stomach and intestines take up the rest. So be careful fellow gardeners with your spade. If seen on the sidewalk, carefully move that earthworm to the grass and out of sight of the early bird. Please.

My first and only sighting of a snake in Houston happened while visiting Rienzi. Rienzi is a mansion like something from an Agatha Christi play, all white limestone curved lines and art deco. They give tours. The gardens are designed by someone famous, but I can’t recollect who. The gardens are proud to be called “very European”. Staircases that lead to avenues, with views at every turn, from clipped lawn to sculpted bushes. All very fancy.

My husband and I had ended our walk through the greenery and were taking the stairs to main-floor ground level when I saw a flash of red out of the corner of my eye.

There, slinking from a raised bed and wiggling across a cement walkway was a coral snake.

In Texas there are garter snakes that are banded with the red, black and yellow so we have a little saying to distinguish between a coral snake (lethal) and the banded garter snake (harmless). All snakes are beneficial, like wine taken in moderation. My thing is that if you kill all the snakes you see you are only leaving more room for the poisonous snakes because there are far more non-poisonous snakes in Texas than poisonous. So chances are the snake you see will not be a poisonous snake. My best advice to you is: if you see a snake, don’t engage it in battle, just run away.

So as I watched this gorgeous red and black and yellow banded snake pass by within a few feet, I recited my little saying. “Red and yellow kill a fellow, red and black safe now, Jack.” This little guy’s yellow bands touched his red bands. This was a genuine coral snake, one of the most lethal of all the poisonous snakes.

I was so thrilled.

I’ve never seen one in the wild. And the ones in cages at the zoo look so washed out and “beat-down”. This one was active and perfectly glossy. Its red was red and its yellow yellow, the colors so bright as to hurt the eyes. It was about twenty inches long, and about as big around as my finger from tip to stern. They can reach as long as three feet but it is rare to see a coral snake much less a really long one. Unlike pit vipers they remain a very slender snake throughout their life, eating small insects and vermin that they can get their tiny mouths around.

There are two types of venomous snakes in America, the pit viper group includes the Copperhead, the rattlesnake, and the water moccasin, and the coral snake. The venom of the pit viper group attacks muscle cells (though some have nerve attacking properties) effectively rotting the cells and doing horrible damage that can lead to loss of limb and even death, the coral snake’s venom like the cobra in other parts of the world, will shut down the nervous system. The Texas Coral snake has two fixed fangs at the front, which means that those fangs can reach just about any part of you that you get near it. The pit-viper’s fangs are hinged. They stay flat with the closed jaws but swing forward when the mouth is opened.

Coral snakes are shy, which is why I was so thrilled to see one. When threatened they curl up and hide their head. I didn’t get near enough to my rare coral snake to make it feel threatened. It squiggled across the walk, up the side of the raised bed of another garden where it disappeared beneath the leaves. Gone forever.

And that’s okay.