A black rat snake flicks its forked tongue at passersby at the Upshur County Trails. (Photo by Brian Bergstrom / My Buckhannon)

Creature Feature: Learn all about the sneaking, snacking snakes native to West Virginia

BUCKHANNON – April showers may bring May flowers, but snakes also re-emerge during the spring season.

West Virginia Wildlife Center biologist Trevor Moore said the center houses three types of snakes native to the Mountain State, including black rat snakes, copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. Currently, the center has one copperhead, and they usually find a black rat snake on the property, which is then made available for patrons to view.

“We also work with some biologists out of the forest service to get us some timber rattlesnakes because they’re using them for biological studies, and they are kind enough to let us use them once in a while for the summer,” Moore said.

Copperheads and timber rattlesnakes are the only venomous snakes in West Virginia.

“If you have a big black [rat] snake around, don’t kill it,” Moore said. “You want to keep it around because they’re direct competitors with the timber rattlesnakes, and they have the same prey. If you have more black snakes, that means you’re going to have a much smaller rodent population.”

Moore said most snakes keep to themselves and will most likely not attack a person unless threatened or startled.

“They just want to be left alone; black snakes will do big bluffs – coil up and try to look scary – but they’re not too bad,” Moore said. “They are pretty mellow; you really have to get after some snakes to get them to try and strike you.”

Timber rattlesnakes have an identifiable rattle on the end of their tail, and copperheads have an identifiable copper color and saddlebag pattern throughout their bodies.

“Copperheads are usually quite small; I didn’t realize how small they were until I came out here because I’m from back West, and we don’t have them there,” Moore said. “Timber rattlesnakes are big rattlesnakes, so they have that distinctive rattle at the end of their tails and that identifiable sound.”

All three of these snakes enjoy eating rodents, but their diet may consist of several small animals.

“All these snakes are going to be eating mice, chipmunks, small rodents, and maybe some of the bigger ones can get squirrels if they wait long enough,” Moore said. “The copperheads like to be around water sometimes, too, so they’ll eat their fair share of frogs, and the black rat snakes will also eat birds or eggs as well – so just about anything they can get a hold of that’s small enough.”

If a person is bitten by a venomous snake, Moore said the best course of action is to seek immediate medical attention and do not attempt to deal with the wound yourself.

“Unless you’re 12 miles out or something and you’re not going be able to make it (to a medical professional), that’s the only time I’d use a tourniquet to stop it,” Moore said. “Do not try and suck out the venom; don’t do any of that – those are all myths. There’s nothing that’s going to get the venom out of you once it’s in your body, so your best bet is to seek medical attention. If it’s copperhead, it probably won’t kill you if you’re a relatively healthy person.”

Moore said anyone with underlying health problems should seek medical attention as soon as possible, however.

“If you have any underlying health conditions, you’re at greater risk, and then, you need to seek help as soon as possible and try not to panic,” he added.

Spring is the most likely time someone is going to encounter a snake in the wild or near their home.

“People are going down by the water more, so they’re going to be seeing more water snakes; they’re going to be cleaning out sheds, spring cleaning in general, and snakes love those little hidey holes that have been sitting out all winter,” Moore said. “Rattlesnakes are coming out of the hibernacula now, so they’re coming out of hibernation, and they’ll be coming out and moving around, looking for food more actively.”

Moore said the number of rattles on a rattlesnake is indicative of how many times the snake has shed its skin, not the number of years it has been alive.

“Rattlesnakes are part of the pit viper family, and that is because they have two paths right beneath their nostrils, called pits, which basically allow them to have heat vision and it helps them hunt,” Moore said. “They are ambush predators, so it helps them see their prey before their prey sees them.”

The snakes at the wildlife center will most likely be viewable May 1, but that is subject to change due to weather.

“Since our enclosures are open to the air, we don’t want them having any freezing nights, even though we have heat lamps in there,” Moore said. “We want them to be as comfortable and safe as possible.”

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