Like a river of black satin, the big snake flows silently through the grass at Reedy Creek Park, seeking the edge of the woods. Even at twilight, there is no mistaking what it is. A few groups are still out enjoying the summer evening, and each has a different reaction:
"Wow, look!" A dad whispers to his kids. "What a beautiful rat snake! Stay real still, and let's watch."
A crowd of teenagers gasps and hoots, while one hollers, "I'm going to grab me a stick and kill that thing!"
A family abruptly abandons their picnic basket and runs, yelping in fear, to lock themselves in their car.
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Thankfully, University City still has forests and fields, along with the creatures that call them home. We start seeing snakes this time of year. Most, like the black rat snake in the park, are harmless and highly beneficial.
By following a couple of simple rules, it is easy to avoid snake problems, even when you run across a copperhead, our most-often encountered poisonous snake. These guidelines also help safeguard against another local danger coming from an unexpected source - black widow spiders living outdoors in gardens.
In a nutshell, you'll want to follow the dad's advice.
Snakes play an important role, quietly and efficiently ridding the world of noxious rodents and harmful insects. In fact, one menu item for big king snakes is poisonous snakes like copperheads. Snakes perform these services without toxic chemicals that truly are dangerous to human health. If a poison will kill a rat, it will kill you and your pets just as dead.
N.C. Cooperative Extension suggests some simple rules for dealing with snakes that work like a charm. First and foremost:
Leave snakes alone.
Stay at least 6 feet away from snakes. With poor vision and only slightly better hearing, a snake may not even know you are there. What snakes do have is a powerful sense of smell. That's what they are doing with that forked tongue, 'licking' the air to catch scents.
A second rule is to always look first before you reach or step.
With a little bit of research, it is easy to tell beneficial snakes from copperheads. A great resource is Gaston County Extension's web page on snakes (www.ces.ncsu.edu/gaston/Pests/reptiles/sprsnakes.html). But copperheads are not just an imaginary threat, and just about everyone in the University City has a copperhead story.
Copperheads are small, stout snakes with an obvious pattern of gold and brown, and the typical triangular head of a pit viper (the same family as rattlesnakes and the cottonmouth). They are more active at night during the warm summer months and hide under rocks, logs, or piles of organic material during the hot daytime. They hibernate in the winter.
A copperhead's bite is generally not fatal, according to Peter Bromley of N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, but it is very painful, can cause scarring, and requires immediate medical attention. The bite can kill pets, such as small dogs.
Research by Witt Gibbons of the University of Georgia helps to explain why copperheads are responsible for more poisonous bites in the United States than any other snake. Instead of making a threatening display to frighten you off - think of a rattlesnake shaking its tail - copperheads don't mess around. They just haul off and strike.
If you encounter a copperhead, don't try to kill it or catch it. Give it a wide berth and let it go, to rid the world of rats until a big king snake or hawk catches it off guard. Look carefully first when walking in natural areas, especially in the evening, before stepping over logs or reaching into dark places, or when picking up big rocks in the yard.
The look before you reach rule is beneficial for more than just snakes. This year and last, several gardeners in the University City have reported finding a significant number of black widow spiders in outdoor garden areas.
No one is sure why this is occurring or what prey is attracting them. The problem is easy to manage. Apply the reach rule, and wear garden gloves.
Most of us flirt with the utopian fantasy that the world would be better off without poisonous pests, but the world doesn't work that way. Learning to live gracefully with things that give us grief is a step toward a more sustainable community and, perhaps, a happier life.
Looking before we leap and keeping our distance from trouble are rules that have applications beyond our relations with copperheads and black widows.