By Jill Henderson
Behind our house, the forest slopes down to a narrow valley that Ozarkers would call a “holler”. In some places the hillside is smoothly covered with a carpet of dead leaves and in others it is a jumble of ankle-twisting rocks of every dimension and color. In one particular place the rocks are so
thickly layered that only a few shrubs and stunted trees can grow alongside the scattering of hardy mounds of native grass and moss. It is here that I like to hunt for my special rocks. Today I was after flat, stepping-stone rocks to use in a pathway in front of the house.
I prefer to pick rocks during this time of year, partly because it’s good exercise, but mostly because it would be a hot, sweaty job in the summer. Also, if I picked rocks in the warmer months I might uncover a salamander or a frog that had made its home beneath the solid protection of the stone. Once a rock is pried up, it can be hard to lay it back down again without crushing the little things underneath. And if I did this in the summer, I would also have a good chance of coming face to face with a copperhead or a rattlesnake.
Many newcomers to the Ozarks are not aware that these hills are home to two different types of rattlesnakes; the large and dangerous timber rattlesnake and the small, shy western pygmy.
The Western Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius streckeri) is the smallest rattlesnake in North America, reaching lengths that are usually less than 20”. When curled up, even an adult pygmy can fit in the palm of a man’s hand. These beautiful snakes are light, grayish-brown with blackish-brown splotches on its head, back and sides. Most adults have a rusty red stripe down the center of their backs. This coloration makes for excellent camouflage among the limestone rocks found in glades and on mountain ridges where this little rattler makes its home.
The pygmy has very small rattles that some say sound like the buzz of a grasshopper, which to the untrained ear, is easily overlooked as a warning signal. For such a small snake, the bite of a pygmy rattler is serious business. Although generally not fatal, the bites are painful and cause swelling and other complications that can be very serious, indeed. Lucky for us these small rattlers are very shy and rarely seen.
If the pygmy rattlesnake is the smallest venomous snake in the Ozarks, the timber rattler is the largest and one of the most dangerous. Like the pygmy, Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) have a base coloration of light grayish-brown and a large rusty stripe down the length of its back, but instead of small dark splotches, the timber rattler has large, broad bands across the back that sometimes connect with smaller blotches down the sides.
Timber rattlers have distinctly angular heads and a dark line running from the corner of the eye down towards the corner of the jaw. Large timber rattlers can reach lengths of five feet or more and have thick, angular-shaped bodies. These snakes are not shy like the pygmy and can inhabit any rocky south facing ledge, ridge or outcropping, as long as there is sufficient prey nearby. The bite of a timber rattler can be exceptionally dangerous, but are rarely reported. In all the time that I have lived here, the only people I know who have had face to face encounters with either of these snakes were looking for them on purpose.
When asked, many people will say that they hate snakes. When pressed, they will generally pick out the copperhead as the major snake to hate. For some people all snakes either are, or represent, a copperhead. This makes them fair game for fear-killers and many a snake has been killed mistakenly. This kill-the-copperhead attitude is ingrained in the Ozark culture and isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Although I strongly disagree with this perspective, I also understand it. The thought of the painful, infection prone bite of a copperhead is not a pleasant one, especially when you have small children or pets to consider. But even though the bites are painful, they are never lethal. In fact, there has never been a single death attributed to the bite of a copperhead.
Besides, copperheads are one of the prettiest snakes I have ever had the pleasure to see. It isn’t hard to admire the pattern and intricate combination of pink, brown, copper and orange that mimics the patterns of dried hardwood leaves on the forest floor. The disguising pattern is so perfect that copperheads easily melt into almost any background and people regularly pass them by without ever seeing them. This is surely one of the things that makes copperheads so frightening to people.
Just after we moved here, I was talking about copperheads with a good old boy who had grown up in the hills. I told him that we hadn’t really seen many copperheads about the place and he replied knowingly, “Well, I reckon it’s better not to start lookin’ for ‘em, either; ‘cause if you look – you’ll see ‘em, allright!” How right he was. Now, anytime I take a notion to look for a copperhead, I can just about always spot one. It takes a few minutes to wrap your mind around the shapes and colors that you want to see; but once you do, it doesn’t take long.
We have learned a thing or two about copperheads in our time here. One of the most important things we came to understand is how truly non-aggressive they really are. They tend to be most active at night, resting during the day curled up in the leaf litter next to a tree stump or under a rock. We have plenty of copperheads around our place and when we find one in an area where we need to work, we gently pick them up with a long-handled shovel or rake and move them back into the woods. Not once have we had a copperhead strike at us or at the implement harassing it.
I have read that most people are bitten by snakes while attempting to catch or kill them. This makes sense because all creatures have the ability to sense our intentions; it’s rather silly to think otherwise. The fly tries to escape the swatter and the snake the human with dark intent. This is why we have never had any trouble relocating copperheads; they sense that we don’t intend to hurt them. Over time we have reduced the copperhead populations in the immediate vicinity of the yard by simply removing the hiding spots they prefer and relocating those snakes that are in places we rather they not be. I’m not under the illusion that a snake understands that it has a boundary line, but they aren’t stupid, either. Snakes are habitual creatures that use the same territory year after year if is suites them. If we relocate a snake, I think it is smart enough to avoid that place in the future.
I don’t need to worry about copperheads today, even though I am deep in their woods picking rocks. They are curled up safe and tight in their dens, sleeping away the worst of winter’s chill. After several rock-hunting forays into the woods I have built up several nice cairns of flat stones along the hillside just waiting to be hauled back to the house on a warmer, dryer day than this.
Copyright Jill Henderson – All Rights Reserved
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