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Was it Venomous?

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake With nearly three million turkey hunters taking to the woods and 6.8 million wild turkeys across North America, this spring will be filled with numerous opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. More than a few hunters will also have a close encounter with another wild creature - the snake!

Many hunters' reactions to snakes involve high-pitched screaming and a mad scramble to safety, or gravity-defying feats of levitation. The outcome of these histrionics is usually unfortunate for both the snake and the peaceful quality of the morning.

Mark Hatfield, National Wild Turkey Federation regional biologist, explained, "Snake encounters typically occur within the two hours after sunrise when snakes are warming up to the morning temperatures. This is the time when hunters are usually distracted with a turkey and have settled into a spot."

CopperheadMany hunters just assume any snake is a venomous snake, but the majority of snakes out there are harmless to people. Even venomous snakes aren't dangerous unless provoked and the chances of being bitten are low.

Chris Phillips, an assistant professional scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, doesn't mind snakes. He goes out of his way to debunk snakes myths and has been fighting an uphill battle to educate people about them.

"Even if presented with physical evidence contrary to popular belief, people are reluctant to change their minds about these creatures," he said.

Unfortunately, most snakes act and react in a similar manner. Snakes that coil up and twitch their tail are often assumed to be rattlesnakes. In fact, many snakes will behave this way when cornered. According to Phillips, water snakes and western hognose snakes are commonly misidentified and killed because their appearance or behavior resembles that of venomous snakes.

Phillips could not give an exact figure on what percentage of snakes out there are venomous versus non-venomous because the numbers will vary from year to year and between different regions of the country.

Pygmy Rattlesnake"If a turkey hunter encounters a snake, the chances it is harmless are far greater, perhaps more than two or three times greater, than if it is a venomous one. Plus, a venomous snake's response to a person is to be invisible or leave when found. They do not want to be found or noticed," he said. Phillips cites his own research, where he radio-tagged rattlesnakes to track their movement. Phillips would often come within striking distance of these rattlers, yet the snakes would not reveal themselves or act aggressive.

"Snakes are ambush predators, and venom is a very expensive commodity. Venom is meant for immobilizing prey, not for defense. Snakes must be prodded into biting a non-prey item. Biting a person is the last measure, for a snake. If a hunter strikes, sits on, steps on or picks up the snake, they may get bitten. The best thing is to just leave it alone," he added.

"Most stories that are told about aggressive snakes come from those who have been bitten by snakes and are too embarrassed to admit they've done something foolish by picking it up, harassing it or trying to step on it." Phillips advised.

Identifying Snakes
There are two families of venomous snakes native to the United States. The pit vipers, of the family Crotalidae, which include rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths, make up the vast majority of venomous snakes in the country. Pit vipers get their common name from a small heat-sensing pit between the eye and nostril that allows the snake to sense prey at night.

The other family of venomous snakes is Elapidae, which includes two species of coral snakes found chiefly in the southern states. They are related to the much more dangerous Asian cobras and kraits. Coral snakes have small mouths and short teeth, which give them less efficient venom delivery than pit vipers. People bitten by coral snakes lack the fang marks of pit vipers, sometimes making the bite hard to detect.

Here are a few guidelines to identify most venomous snakes.

Pit Vipers

  • Head Shape: large, triangular shaped head and much narrower neck
  • Pupil Shape: vertical or elliptical pupil, like a cat's eye
  • Presence of Rattles: rattlesnakes only
Coral Snakes
  • Head Shape: slender
  • Pupil Shape: round
Coral snakes share many characteristics of non-venomous snakes. There are many variants on sayings that will help one remember the difference between a coral snake and a harmless king snake or milk snake.

"Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack."

"Red next to black is safe for Jack; red next to yellow will kill any fellow."

"Red on yellow, dangerous fellow; red on black, friend to Jack"

"Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, won't hurt Jack"

All tell the same warning about the color pattern for North American coral snakes. However, identifying venomous snakes isn't easy; there are numerous exceptions to the rules above, especially when dealing with coral snakes. Characteristics such as head shape are subjective to the observer; something that appears triangular to one person may seem slender to another. And some nonvenomous water snakes have characteristics that make it easy to confuse them with venomous snakes. Also, identifying some of these characteristics, such as noting the pit sensors, requires close examination of the snake, something we recommend you avoid.

The Venomous Facts
It seems that for every myth that exists for nonvenomous snakes, there is just as much misinformation about venomous snakes. Here are the facts from the Centers for Disease Control:

  7,000 venomous snake bites are reported annually in the United States. 15 fatalities result, placing the chance of survival at roughly 499 out of 500 (99.8 percent survival).
  Approximately 3,000 are classed as illegitimate, meaning these bites occurred while the victim was handling the snake.
  85 percent of the bites are below the knee.
  50 percent of bites are dry. Squeezing the venom glands is a  voluntary reflex. Strikes are generally defensive actions, it is estimated that no venom is purposely injected about half the time.

Recognizing a Bite
The stabbing strike of a pit viper can be recognized by one or two definite puncture wounds. There will be intense, burning pain and swelling around the holes, if venom is present.

The coral snake bites and holds. There will be little pain, but the victim will begin to lose control of all reflexes. Drooping eyelids will probably be the first sign of coral snake venom.

The NWTF recommends these simple rules if you've been bitten by a venomous snake:

  Remain calm - Remember that there is an excellent chance for survival, and in most cases, there is plenty of time.
  Remove jewelry - Swelling can progress rapidly. Rings, watches and bracelets can become a real problem if not removed quickly.
  Mark the time - The progress of symptoms and timing will help doctors treat your snake bite.
  Keep the stricken limb below the heart to slow the progress of the venom.
  Get to a hospital as quickly as possible -Anti-venom serum is the only sure cure for snake venom. Because some people are allergic to the serum, it should only be given in a fully equipped medical facility.
  In case of a coral snake bite, do pull the snake off immediately - Corals' fangs are relatively small, and they have to work at getting venom into the wound.

Turkey Hunting and Snakes
Hatfield suggested that turkey hunters be cautious of sunning spots where snakes are likely to be found. These spots are places where snakes soak up the warmth of the sun to speed up their metabolism. He emphasized that hunters need to be keenly aware of their surroundings before they sit down.

"South-facing slopes, root balls, stumps and bases of rock piles are common places where snakes will seek out to warm themselves. Coincidentally, these are also places where hunters are likely to sit to call or gain a vantage point on turkeys." Hatfield explained, "The next thing that hunters should avoid is grabbing, striking or picking up the snake. Handling snakes, especially venomous ones, should be left to the experts."

If hunters wish to add some insurance, wearing snake chaps will significantly lessen the chances of a penetrating bite as most bites are below the knee.

"If a turkey hunter encounters a snake, take two steps back and calmly walk around it. Snakes, in general, can only strike at a distance of 1/2 to 2/3 the length of their body," said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, NWTF senior vice president for conservation programs. "Taking two steps back will significantly reduce the chances of a bite by putting a safe distance between the snake and the hunter."

Enjoy the hunt, but keep a calm eye out for the snakes that inhabit turkey country.


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