MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

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April 18, 2014

COLUMN: Snakes a pointed subject as spring rolls around

The redbuds and dogwoods are blooming and the rest of nature’s not far behind.

The warm Green Country sun has critters of all varieties venturing out of their warm and comfortable winter dwellings. Whether you live in town, out in the sticks, or simply enjoy hiking and venturing afield, it’s a good idea to watch your step and be aware of your surroundings.

Snakes are coming out of their dens and moving about.

In early April, copperheads emerge from hibernation but remain near their dens for several weeks before mating, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife. They do not congregate in large numbers while hibernating.

Copperheads commonly  sun or hide in masses of dead leaves where their coloration makes them nearly invisible. When daytime temperatures reach or exceed 90 degrees, they move to fields or creek bottoms.

Hikers and campers should be more cautious in such areas, especially during the spring when snakes are lethargic and less likely to flee from intruders.

Rattlesnakes can be in community dens by the hundreds during the winter. The den is usually a cave or rocky recess. A rattlesnake’s habit range is varied and they take up residence wherever small mammals such as as prairie dogs, rabbits, gophers, ground squirrels, mice and rats can be found.

The number of snakebites recorded in Oklahoma are on the increase.

During the period from January to August of 2013,  a total of 142 snakebites were recorded. In the same period for 2012, a total of 126 snakebites were recorded. In 2011, it was 122.

 Copperhead bites are the most common followed by rattlesnake bites and a large number of bites were unknown. According to the Noble Foundation of Oklahoma, of the 46 species of snakes native to our state, only seven are venomous to humans.

 If you learn to identify the seven venomous species, then you will recognize all other Oklahoma snakes as not dangerous.

I will readily admit I’m about as yellow as they come when dealing with the slithery serpents. In all actuality, when I encounter a snake  it’s highly probable they make me do more damage to myself than a snake can possibly inflict alone.

 All seven venomous species actually belong to same family, Viperidae or pit vipers. These snakes have a pit on each side of the head between and below the nostril and eye. The pits serve the vipers well acting as stereoscopic heat-sensing organs that allow them to strike warm-blooded prey in total darkness.

In addition, pit vipers are the only Oklahoma snakes with retractable fangs in the tops of their mouths which are used to inject venom for killing prey as well as a defense mechanism. Many of the traits listed above requires something that’s ill-advised — being too up close and personal.

Two other traits might help identify snakes from a safe distance.

Nonvenomous snakes tend to be more slender with heads only slightly larger than their bodies whereas venomous snakes tend to be shorter and much stockier with heads significantly larger than their necks.

The Noble Foundation, headquartered in Ardmore, tells us the best way to safely identify a venomous snake from a distance is to simply learn the color patterns and general characteristics of the seven venomous species.

It’s not as difficult as it might seem because the seven venomous species can be further lumped in to three types, rattlesnakes ,copperhead and cottonmouth.

If you learn to identify a rattlesnake, a copperhead and a cottonmouth, then you can quickly tell whether an Oklahoma snake is venomous or not.

 Some time spent viewing snake images on the internet or checking out a library book with good pictures can help educate your family  in recognizing the snakes that can pose a problem to humans.

One of the strangest places I’ve been close to a copperhead, was when a co-worker was emptying the money from a pop vending machine.

As he opened the door of the machine and went to retrieve the coin box, there curled up near the motor in an effort to keep warm was Mr. Copperhead.

 Must have been an old-time security system added after the machine was delivered to our place of employment.

Steve Evans, park naturalist at Greenleaf State Park, puts it well.

“Snakes are our friends and they help control the mice and rat population. If you leave them alone, they won’t bother you most of the time,” said Evans.

 John Kilgore’s outdoor column runs Fridays in the Phoenix. To reach him with news or comments, call (918) 348-9431 or email him at jkilgoreoutdoors@yahoo.com.

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