Snakes in the House and in Richmnd Homes and Yards

Legend has it that Saint Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. We could use a guy like that! There is no other animal that creates the panic, in otherwise reasonable people, that snakes do. There is a lot of bad information out there about snakes. Here are the facts:

Poisonous Snakes

The only poisonous snake you will run into in the Richmond area is the copperhead. We do have rattlesnakes in Virginia, both in the mountains and along the coast, but not around here. On rare occasions a cottonmouth (water moccasin) turns up in southern Chesterfield County, but this is very uncommon.

Snakes in buildings

Snakes do sometimes enter buildings. They usually stay in the crawl space, basement, or attic, but do occasionally come up into the house itself. Of the snakes that enter buildings, the vast majority are black rat snakes (“black snakes”), probably due to the fact that entering most buildings requires some vertical climbing, at which rat snakes are superb. Why snakes come in: Usually it will be for one of these reasons:

1) There is something to eat in the building. Usually this means mice, but it may also be birds, bats, lizards, large insects, etc. If the snake does find a good meal, it may stay for a week or so, and will make regular return trips.

2) To explore. Even if no prey species are present, a snake commonly scouts out the various hiding places within its home range (generally 10-50 acres) to see what it can find.

3) To shed its skin. The process of shedding the skin leaves the snake with limited eyesight for a day or so, just prior to the old skin actually coming off. This makes it vulnerable to predators, so it makes sense to seek out a safe place (such as a crawl space or attic) for a day or two while the shedding takes place.

4) As a temporary refuge to escape from a predator, rain, the hot sun, etc.

What to do: Snakes entering buildings are generally dealt with by:

1) Eliminating any prey species (mice, etc.) which are present.

2) To the extent possible, snake entry points into the building are found and sealed. Since black snakes are capable climbers, the roofline and upper portions of the building need to be included in this seal-up effort.

Removing snakes

It would be great if we could just come out, find the snake, and take it away, but it is seldom that easy. While we certainly will search for snakes, actually finding one is more a function of luck than skill. Why? Most of the time the snake is either long gone, or is hidden in an inaccessible part of the building. Looking for a snake is like looking for a needle in a haystack, except that we only have part of the haystack to search, the needle can move at any time, and the needle may, in fact, not even be in the haystack anymore!

Snakes outside

Again, the majority of calls we get for snakes in yards are black snakes. We get many calls for “copperheads,” but most turn out to be cases of mistaken identity. A few do turn out to be actual copperheads. Keep in mind that most snakes range over a 10-50 acre area, so the snake in your yard is either passing through, or has taken up temporary refuge while making the rounds.

What works:

1) Snake Away repellent. Used properly, this product will keep the majority of snakes out of the treated area. It is not magic, and will not keep out every snake in every situation. It needs to be reapplied every three months.

2) Removing large piles of firewood, stones, boards, brush, etc, or, in the least, moving these piles to the outer edges of the property. These piles serve as refuges for the snakes and as homes for small rodents, which attract snakes.

Not recommended:

1) Relying on the expectation that the snake can be found and removed. As stated above, this is not all that likely to happen. Even if it does happen, there are other snakes around which can come into the area at will.

2) Moth balls and/or sulfur. Actually both have some repellent abilities when it comes to snakes, but Snake Away works much better.

3) Drastic landscape changes. A lot of published advice for discouraging snakes focuses on “eliminating places snakes can hide.” This would be great advice if it was even remotely practical. Short of bringing in a bulldozer or flamethrower, there is no practical way to accomplish this. Get rid of the big piles or debris (as above), and try to minimize dense overgrowth, especially close to the house, but do not drastically alter your landscaping or think that you need to live in a moonscape.


Unrealistic expectations

Short of divine intervention (which brings us back to Saint Patrick) there is no way to absolutely assure that any area will be snake-free.

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