Not in my backyard. NIMBY.
Whether spelled out or abbreviated, the phrase reflects the opinion that some things, even some good things, are better appreciated from afar.
Landfills, for example. Or cell towers. And, in particular for wildlife gardeners, poisonous snakes.
I started thinking about this one day last week, as I moved a pile of sticks in my yard and saw one of them slithering away. Several fast heartbeats later, I recognized a small copperhead skittering toward the bushes, so rudely disturbed.
I know, intellectually, there are numerous snakes in the garden and a few precautions can make a negative encounter highly unlikely. Yet I still get a strong flight or fight reaction whenever snakes appear on the scene. In this case, I slowly backed away and stayed away long enough for my uninvited tenant to leave the area.
I discussed this topic with John Gerwin, co-founder of the Wild West Avent neighborhood gardening group, after seeing his recent blog post about moving a pesky copperhead using tongs, something I would not try at home.
Gerwin, who works for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, is a bird researcher by profession, but has a passion for all things wildlife. He talked about the fact that North Carolina typically ranks No. 1 in the U.S. when it comes to snake bite incidents.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gerwin said, show 19 snakebites per 100,000 people annually in North Carolina, while the national average is about 4.5. That means 1,900 people are bitten by snakes in a given year.
The most common venomous snake in North Carolina is the copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix, which is found in all 100 counties. Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths are also present in some areas. Copperheads were implicated in just over half of the 614 poisonous bites called in to the Carolinas Poison Center in 2015, according to an N.C. Health News report.
614The number of poisonous bites called in to the Carolinas Poison Center in 2015.
I, for one, would prefer not to join that elite group, and Gerwin agrees.
“I joked about relocating the snake to a neighbor’s yard, but nobody wants this thing,” he adds, musing with me about the way wildlife-human conflict continues today. He actually moved it to another part of his own yard.
“It’s interesting how we love some animals only at arm’s length or under certain terms.” Although, as gardeners for wildlife, “we learn to live with it,” Gerwin says.
While snakes seem to be the most fear-inducing creatures in the wildlife garden, they typically are only active at night – with the possible exception of late summer and early fall, when they may throw caution to the wind, appearing in places and at times they would avoid. These weeks are considered snakes’ “courtship” period, says Gerwin.
“August and September can be the busiest month, as far as seeing them around,” he adds.
Although most of us are unlikely to welcome the sight of any venomous snake, learning a little more about them and their lifestyles could help ease some concerns.
For example, copperheads do not really want to inject you with their venom. They’d rather save it for dinnertime.
“They use the venom for subduing prey; they don’t want to waste it,” Gerwin said. “If they bite you, it might be 24 hours before they can eat again.”
About half of all copperhead bites are considered “dry bites,” a sort of warning shot with no venom included. Wearing thick boots or shoes and making plenty of noise as you enter areas of high grass or walk near piles of sticks or stones will lessen the chance that you’ll suffer a poisonous strike.
Another point to consider: Copperheads are not the most deadly venomous snake you can encounter. In fact, there are few known cases of human fatalities involving copperheads.
“It’s going to hurt, and you are probably going to lose some tissue, maybe a finger,” Gerwin said.
The snake’s venom, however, is often far more deadly to smaller creatures, including dogs and cats. So it can make sense to kill snakes in some cases; for example, a copperhead spotted inside a child’s playground or dog’s kennel would be an unacceptable threat.
However, in any wooded or naturalized area there will be snakes, and in most cases it’s best to leave them be.
“Once they know they’ve been spotted, you can walk away and they’ll take off,” Gerwin said. “If it’s a snake you see regularly, you may even want it to stick around. They’re territorial and will keep other snakes out of the area. And you’ll know exactly where to look.”
In case of a bite, current wisdom is to forget about the tourniquet or trying to suction out the poison. Just call 911 and seek treatment from a local medical provider.
In about two months, late October, snakes will head into their dens, where they will remain until springtime. Meanwhile, stay alert when working in your wildlife garden and don’t pick up any moving sticks.
Response to coyote column
I received a note from Robert Lucas of Selma, who objected to my characterization of coyotes as “mostly harmless.” He told me that coyotes in his area roam in packs and have eliminated nearby populations of foxes, rabbits and other forms of wildlife. Coyotes have come into the yard, attacked his dog and killed his cat.
Under such circumstances, I have to agree that my advice to simply discourage coyotes by removing dog food, birdseed and other backyard temptations seems tepid, at best. I was, I suppose, addressing those of us in more urbanized areas who have an occasional sighting or hear a distant howl.
North Carolina is a diverse state with a variety of regional issues that can be difficult to address. It is legal to hunt coyotes on private land in most North Carolina jurisdictions, and the experiences related by Lucas and others like him help me better understand why.
Reach Elder at firstname.lastname@example.org