[This story appears as an on-going series in the "Gilroy Dispatch"]
The Drought Will Bring Snakes May, 2014 By Amy Yee
Gopher Snakes found in California
Several months ago I wrote about the probable consequences to wildlife of the anticipated drought. The drought has now officially arrived and there is no longer much hope for any significant rain for the next six months. When water is lacking, plants do not grow, insects and rodents do not thrive, and large animals that eat small animals have a difficult time finding a meal.
Already this year, WERC took in red-tailed hawk that was literally starving. She was less than half the normal weight of a healthy bird, and her organs were failing.
Despite our best efforts, including tubefeeding and rehydration, she could not be saved. Wildlife rehabilitators fear that they will see many more of these patients as we move into the summer months.
The drought also brings animals into closer contact with humans, as they come to inhabited areas they would not normally approach, looking for food and water. Among these animals are snakes. Fortunately, in this area there is only one poisonous native snake, the rattlesnake.
Rattlesnakes have two easily identifiable features: a triangular shaped head, narrow neck and thick body, and of course the rattles on the end of the tail that give the snake its name. Our local gopher snake has similar coloration but the head is narrow, the body is not as wide in proportion to the neck, and there are no rattles. Although not poisonous, a gopher snake can bite and will sometimes coil and shake its tail when it feels threatened.
It is best to give any snake you find in your yard a wide berth. If you believe the snake is a rattler, first be mindful of your safety and keep children and pets away from it. You can call County Vector Control at 408 918-4770 and ask that the snake be removed. They will try to assist if possible. However, Vector Control is only open Monday through Friday from 7:30 to 4:00, and is not an emergency services agency. Within the city limits of Morgan Hill, you can call the Morgan Hill Police at 408 779-2101 for assistance. That number is answered 24/7.
Other snakes you might find in your yard, such as king snakes, gopher snakes, garter snakes, and racers are not only harmless to humans, they are expert rodent catchers. King snakes will even catch and eat rattlesnakes. (Several years ago a king snake was found on the driveway to WERC, eating a rattlesnake.) A good source to help identify the various California snakes is www.californiaherps.com/identification/snakesid/common.html.
There is no reason to remove a nonpoisonous snake unless, of course, you just don't want any snakes around. How can you ensure that your yard is snake-proof? Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way to do that. You can, however, greatly reduce the chances of finding a snake in your yard. First, make your property unattractive to snakes: remove sources of water, thick piles of vegetation and wood piles. Any area that is attractive to rodents is attractive to their predators, especially snakes. Snakes generally do not like open areas. If you put out a water bowl for your dog or cat, put it in an open area where you can see all around it, and be careful when you pick it up as a snake could be hiding underneath. When it is hot out, as it is sure to be this summer, be especially careful in shaded areas where a snake may go to cool off.
A quick internet search reveals that there are several commercial "snake repellant" products on the market. These are apparently chemicals made up of different food scents that will supposedly deter snakes. There are also designs for "snake fences." The manufacturers point out that it may not be practical to enclose your entire property in a snake fence, but that it might be reasonable, for example, to enclose a children's play area. The efficacy of these products is unknown and online reviews are mixed.
Also on the internet is advice that wildlife rehabilitators do NOT recommend you follow, such as using sticky traps to catch snakes. Sticky traps catch all animals indiscriminately, causing the animal to suffer a prolonged and painful death. WERC once took in a little screech owl who had become stuck in sticky trap. The poor bird had torn the skin off his feet in an effort to escape. Please, do not use sticky traps for any purpose.
The bottom line is this: residents of the South County are likely to see more snakes this summer due to the drought. You can take reasonable measures to make your yard less attractive to snakes, but if you do encounter one it is best to leave it alone. Call for assistance if needed. Our local rattlesnakes are not a particularly aggressive species, although of course they should never be handled and will strike if cornered. Our other common native snakes are all harmless. Enjoy them for their beauty and appreciate the important role they play in the natural world.
WERC is a licensed 501(c)(3) organization that has been providing wildlife education and rehabilitation services in the South County for 23 years.
Amy Randall Yee has lived in Santa Clara County for 35 years and has volunteered at WERC for six years. She is the President of the Board of Directors of WERC. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
W.E.R.C., the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center provides the community with rehabilitation services for orphaned, injured and sick native wildlife. Through our educational programs, W.E.R.C. encourages a peaceful coexistence between civilization and our native wildlife. Federal tax ID #77-0324296