Does mild February mean snake season has arrived early? | ECOVIEWS

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Mid-March has two milestones linked to snakes: St. Patrick's Day, March 17, and the official beginning of spring, March 20.

The first relates to the legend that St. Patrick ran the snakes out of Ireland (which didn't have snakes in the first place and still doesn’t). The second heralds the emergence of many U.S. reptiles from winter dormancy. Due to the February warm spell this year in the Southeast, questions have begun earlier than usual about this captivating group of top predators.

Venomous pit vipers derive their name from the heat-sensitive pit between the nostril and the eye as seen on this copperhead. [Photo provided by Parker Gibbons]
Venomous pit vipers derive their name from the heat-sensitive pit between the nostril and the eye as seen on this copperhead. [Photo provided by Parker Gibbons]

Q. We’ve lived in Aiken, South Carolina, 18 years. While working in my yard the last three weeks, I've seen six to eight snakes of various sizes. I haven’t seen that many before during a whole summer. Is there a reason I'm seeing so many snakes this year?

A. The number of snakes in your yard probably does not vary much from year to year. But the mild February weather led lots of people, like you, to begin gardening earlier than usual. Many snakes, out looking for their first meal of the year, emerged before ground cover had fully developed, which meant you were more likely to see them. Incidental encounters with snakes are always a matter of chance. I would say that so far this year you have been lucky.

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Q. I live in Kennesaw, Georgia, and appreciate seeing snakes in our yard occasionally. I have already seen two this spring. Unfortunately my neighbor is sprinkling snake repellent around her house. Will that hurt the snakes? Will it keep them away?

A. I know of absolutely no scientific documentation that so-called snake repellent, a mixture of sulfur and naphthalene (mothballs), is effective outdoors. It is not going to hurt a passing snake and will be washed away by the first rain. You can tell your neighbor that if snake repellent worked, she would be making sure that any snakes under her house would be unable to leave.

Q. We have moved to Alabama from Vermont, where snakes were not a matter of concern. What are some general guidelines we should know about snakes in the Southeast?

A. The first thing to consider is that although Alabama has more kinds of snakes (43) than Vermont (11), the average Southerner never sees a snake from one year to the next. Furthermore, most snakes in the U.S. pose no threat to humans. Your chances of receiving a serious bite from an encounter with a venomous snake are low. If you do not try to kill the snake or pick it up, your chances decrease even further.

For anyone living in the Southeast, even in suburban areas, my advice is learn to recognize the common visitors, such as ratsnakes, garter snakes and watersnakes. Home gardeners often see red-bellied, ringneck and DeKay’s brown snakes. Check reliable websites or consult a field guide to learn which ones live in your area and what they look like. “Snakes of the Eastern United States” (Whit Gibbons, University of Georgia Press, 2017) has more than 385 color photographs and includes information about all species.

The Southeast is home to six venomous snakes, five of which are pit vipers: cottonmouths, copperheads, and three rattlesnakes — pygmy, eastern diamondback and canebrake (aka timber rattlesnake). The sixth venomous species is the eastern coral snake. If you see a snake and are not sure what kind it is, treat it as if it were venomous and stay a safe distance away. No snake in the U.S. will chase you. It would much prefer to have nothing to do with you.

Snakes are one of nature’s top predators and their presence indicates a healthy environment. If you recognize that most snakebites are avoidable and follow some commonsense safety procedures, you need not fear any snake. As I have said before, rather than hope for a St. Patrick to rid the world of serpents, learn to appreciate them. Take a few simple precautions then go enjoy the outdoors, snakes and all.

Whit Gibbons
Whit Gibbons

Whit Gibbons is professor of zoology and senior biologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. If you have an environmental question or comment, email

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Does mild February mean snake season has arrived early? | ECOVIEWS