Snakes: Friend or Foe?

By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

All summer long Dean and I have been having a serious problem with a mouse in the engine compartment of our car, where it has been tearing up insulation and chewing through wires.  We have repeatedly fished out wads of grass and other nesting materials that the mouse has drug under the hood thinking the engine compartment would make a great winter den.  The damage from the mouse’s nocturnal goings on was beginning to get out of hand, but despite all our efforts we could not catch it, or kill it, or persuade it to leave.

This morning Dean went out to the car to try to deal with the mouse yet again, but when he opened the hood he found not a mouse, but a very large and strikingly attractive speckled king snake loosely curled up in the corner beneath the windshield wiper mechanism.  The snake seemed very relaxed and made no effort to escape or defend itself, which gave us a good opportunity to look it over.

The Speckled King Snake (Lampropeltis getulus holbrooki) is a very attractive snake that can reach 40” in length.  Some king snakes have a dark brown background but most are a deep, shiny black.  All have small whitish-yellow spots all over the back and sides and their bellies are black with yellow checkers.  The one we are looking at right now reminds me of the night sky studded with stars.  Though king snakes are quite common in the Ozarks, like most snakes, they are quite secretive and seldom seen.

King snakes have a local reputation for being the only snake that copperheads fear and because of this, they are often the one snake that people don’t mind having around.  I don’t know if king snakes actually prevent copperheads from visiting areas in which they live, but it is true that they are immune to the venom of copperheads and will feed on any smaller snake, including copperheads.

In addition to eating other snakes, king snakes dine on a variety of lizards, birds, and rodents.   And from the look of it, the big king snake under the hood of our car seems to have taken care of our mouse problem for us.  After we fill our eyes with the sight of this beautiful and very welcome visitor, Dean closed the hood carefully so that the snake could continue it’s after dinner nap.

While many people loathe and fear snakes, they are not nearly as scary or dangerous as we often imagine them to be.   In fact, only a tiny percentage of snakes in the US carry a venomous bite.  The majority of snakes are not only shy and retiring – most try very hard to either hide or flee when humans are near.

So not only do snakes play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem, they also take care of pesky little mice that chew up expensive insulation and wiring in our cars.  Only a friend would do that!

To learn more about snakes in your area, check out this PDF of Snakes of Missouri from the MO Department of Conservation.

© 2010 Jill Henderson

A Journey of Seasons by Jill Henderson

Excerpted in part from the book:
A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one.  Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor.  This is one journey you don’t want to miss.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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