Monday, November 13, 2017

Dozens of Snakes Rescued From Iowa Well -- Snake Hero Guest Post --

    A property owner reached out a couple weeks ago to find someone to help him with a problem. He is building on an old farmstead and when he opened the well pit he noticed a bunch of snakes inside. His problem was not with the snakes being there, rather that the well was about to be demolished and he didn't want them to get killed in the process. I got in contact with him to find out when the well was being filled in and if there was any way to delay it until spring. 

    Unfortunately, the demolition could not be delayed.

    Iowa's laws are a bit weird in places. As far as I know, there was nothing stopping the land owner from demolishing the well with all the snakes inside...
But, it would be illegal to remove them without permits. I contacted a few people with the Iowa DNR to find out what could be done. Normally, obtaining permits take some time and we did not have much to spare. Thankfully, it was decided that since my name is on Linn County Conservation permits I could be given permission to remove the snakes and keep them for the winter.

    I met the land owner on the property on the morning of November 9th. He told me a little about what was going on with the construction and then showed me to the well pit. 

    Three snakes were immediately visible.

    That didn't seem so bad. He had mentioned seeing more though, and I suspected some others were hiding in the nooks. Sure enough, they were.

    One was even down the small vertical pipe in the floor.

    This still wasn't too many and I was able to get them all out, even the one down in the floor. But... and there is always a but... when I was removing the ones from around a pipe, I saw another one up higher in a crevice, and it slipped away into the hollow part of the bricks. We found a heavy piece of metal and used it to break through the front of the brick and that is when things got interesting. There wasn't just one more snake up in the hollow, there were three more. Then I noticed even more up in the corners. So, I started breaking open more bricks.

    It seemed like every time I broke open a new brick I would find another group of snakes.

    It is a good thing the well was being demolished, and this wasn't just a case of a home owner wanting the snakes to be removed, because I feel like I got a good start on the demolition.

    Fortunately, most of the snakes were restricted to that wall. I did some checks on the other three sides, and did find a few snakes, but nowhere near as many.
    One of the snakes I found was a racer high up in the southern wall that looked to be in the process of crawling into the well through a hole that was drilled for a wire. I had broken into the brick below it, and reached up and felt it. Pretty much every other snake I had done that to would start to flee into another cavity. This racer didn't move though. I very carefully broke out the brick around him, I got a better view, and he seemed pretty stuck.

    I left it there for a little bit, while I dug out other snakes, hoping it would wiggle its way out, but it hadn't budged. When we felt we had found all the snakes we could out from the rest of the bricks, we talked about the options for the racer. Fortunately for the snake, it was in the top row of bricks, not far below the surface... but we didn't have a shovel. The land owner managed to find a flat piece of metal though and it was enough to dig out along the outside of the wall. I dug down to a little above where I thought the snake was, then used my fingers to dig further and eventually found it. I hoped he could possibly pull back out through the hole, but he was definitely stuck. I dug down to find the wire that was in the hole with it, and we were able to cut it, and pull it out. That gave the snake enough room to slip the rest of the way through.

    In the end, we ended up pulling out 38 Western Fox Snakes (Pantherophis vulpinus), and 11 Racers (Coluber constrictor). I have no doubt we missed a few in the walls, but there was some places I just couldn't safely break into. The snakes I was able to catch are currently being kept in a cold place in my house to keep them inactive for the winter. In the spring they will be released back on to the property where they came from.

About the Author

Don Becker is  a self-employed IT professional, that is fortunate to have free time to devote to activities he is passionate about (e.g., conservation, education). He is the Chief Technology Officer for the 501(c)(3) non-profit HerpMapper citizen science project, and volunteers with Linn County, Iowa Conservation Department doing educational programs, wildlife surveys, and habitat restoration.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Snake Identification Challenge of the Week: A Snake Rescue and Copper Moccasin Rattlesnakes...

Hi,  We have a snake I was hoping you could identify.  I am sure it’s a copper moccasin rattlesnake but my hubby says not.  But it does have a pretty face and I couldn’t find another picture like it. We live in Elmore County AL on the southeast rim of the Wetumpka Crater.  We live at the top of this hill and a creek runs about a quarter mile downhill from us and there are a few ponds in the overall area but we are pretty dry  here.  I am sure he crawled on my porch to munch a brood of baby lizards that have been living there for a few weeks. He is inhabiting the pine straw in the garden area at the moment.  Thanks in advance for your help.  

Linda U.


Could you please help me identify the snake in this picture? I am in the West Georgia area. The picture was taken at the end of September. Poor guy(?) got stuck in my garden fence running from the lawnmower. I cut him out safely. I like having unpaid rodent control.

Thank you,



My wife saw this snake in our backyard this weekend and now is scared to go out in our yard. Need your help identifying it so I can get her out of the house. We live in Birmingham, Alabama and have a fairly good sized lake in our neighborhood. Houses on both sides of us have young children, so neighbors are concerned too.

Greatly appreciate the help,

Ed B.

What Are These Snakes?

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume I know what kind of snake is in the picture. I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.

Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Monday, November 6, 2017

American Snakes Contest Winners Announcement!

Photo Courtesy Zack West


Contest trivia questions and answers:

Q = Name two snakes with the same name as the author of American Snakes

A = Regina grahamii, Salvadora grahamiae (common names accepted)

Q = Which invasive snake, covered in chapter 10 of American Snakes, is this a close up photograph of?

A = Burmese Python

Q = Despite John Muir’s assertion that Yellowstone National Park is above the “snake line”—too high in elevation to support snake populations—Yellowstone is home to one rattlesnake species, as discussed in Chapter 11 of American Snakes. Which is it?

A = Prairie Rattlesnake

Q = Which native U.S. snake, part of a diverse group of “truly American snakes” discussed in Chapter 1, is this a close up of?

A = Ribbonsnake (some winners even recognized the subspecies, congrats!)

Q = Mother rattlesnakes stay with their young for a week or more after they give birth. This and other fascinating aspects of snake reproduction are covered in chapter 5 of American Snakes. How many adorable baby rattlesnakes can you count in the photo?

A = 4


Andrew DuBois (real winner)

Robb Herrington (fake winner)

If you didn't win, don't worry, you can pre-order
American Snakes from Amazon here: American Snakes


Enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 4: 
A Year in the Life of a Snake.

    I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

A Cottonmouth Year

    The seasons of a Georgia swamp can seem virtually nonexistent. If visited at any point from April to October, the untrained eye may discern no changes. The days are long and hot, and the entire active season seems to be one long summer—the genuine, buoyant spring and crisp autumn inexplicably missing. Compared to places farther north, seasonal changes take place at a leisurely pace, but upon closer inspection, and after achieving a more intimate familiarity, one realizes that anywhere you go on the planet—owing to its slight tilt toward the sun—there are always constant and sprinting upheavals, eruptions, and cycles. To get a feel for seasonal changes in Georgia, you have to practically get down on your hands and knees and crawl face-first through the rich muck, looking down into its swirling clay waters at least three or four times a week. Then you understand that the place does have seasons, and contained within that languid summer there are in fact the hurried activities of a thousand creatures contributing to the year’s changes. Cynics might instead categorize the seasons of Georgia solely in terms of its biting insects: winter is sand fly season, spring is mosquito season, changing to deer fly season, gnat season, and so forth. But instead I focus on the more abundant species that pack their activities into the long southern summertime, resulting in—for those with the patience to observe it—a net gain in seasonal activity.

    I got to know these seasons well when I disappeared into a Georgia swamp for nearly a decade studying its snakes. I anticipated the emergence of snakes with as much esteem as singing frogs, blooming wildflowers, and arriving birds. I occasionally returned to civilization for dinner and a movie, for classes and graduations, for birthday parties and work. But those years in my memory are now an amalgam of yellow-green summers catching cottonmouths.

Photo Courtesy Noah Fields
    For the cottonmouth, the new year begins in March, when the first days of spring are bright enough to sunburn you. Big purple clouds propped on narrow shafts of sunlight in February give way to white cumulous clouds aloft on warm air. Giant W- and V-shaped flocks of trumpeting sandhill cranes slowly drift north, their 5-foot wingspans little more than specks flying high among jumbo jets. Cottonmouths appear at the base of rock outcrops along the creeks, next to overhanging banks of roots, atop the hummocks topped by small trees and grasses, and circle old stump holes in the hardwood forests, never too far from water. On warm days they can be found this way, curled in a tight coil, gray and pitiful looking. 

    For a few weeks, dozens of cottonmouths can be found near their wintering sites basking before descending into the floodplains to begin hunting. In April, before a riot of yellow-green vegetation fills the landscape, equal numbers of cottonmouths can be found basking as those lying next to narrow waterways, with their heads and necks cocked and aimed, ready to ambush prey. They are hungry after their winter slumber.

    Then the trees leaf out, their hundreds of big trunks acting like a thousand straws sucking down the winter water table. The water sinks by at least 2 feet, and archipelagos, peninsulas, and a network of channels appear from the yellow water, forming a perfect maze of hunting edges for cottonmouths. For the next three months, the swamp is the setting for biological dramas rivaling those of the African savannah. Cottonmouths are a constant hazard for anything in the swamp smaller than a raccoon. Frogs, fish, birds, rodents, snakes, crawdads, and numerous other creatures live in perpetual anxiety that the next root they encounter may in fact be a cleverly disguised snake. Along the quagmire of cutoff channels, oxbows, sloughs, and beaver projects, dozens of cottonmouths are propped along the edge of the water, patiently waiting.

    The hot days pass slowly, and you’ll be tempted to think that time has arrested, that the year has stalled in a long, humid purgatory of summer. Red-eyed vireos sing a drawling, repetitive warble from the treetops. Acadian flycatchers call abruptly from the hot, green gloom under the canopy, as if cursing the heat. Cottonmouths soon pile atop driftwood and hummocks, basking half in the filtered dark green, half out in the dappled summer sun. Such snakes have a lump in their belly, and are basking to quickly digest their meal before returning to the hunt.

    Late summer—the breeding and birthing season—is the most mysterious and exciting time for observing cottonmouths. Half the females each year will give birth, and half are available for mating and will give birth the next year. The snakes seem to disappear. Many are likely under cover and up to sexual deeds. From July to September, you are equally likely to find a hunting cottonmouth as you are to suddenly stumble upon a quartet of plump, pregnant females basking atop an upturned umbrella of windthrown roots. Or you may turn the corner of a swamp channel and suddenly discover a female snake half out of her old skin—as if undressing—attended by a male lustfully nudging her back with his snout, passionately darting his tongue along her sweet, musky back.

    Late summer progresses to a brief autumn, when the oppressive summer humidity at last yields to a mercifully crisp, dry heat. Nights cool off, and one by one the annual vegetation finishes, producing fruit, some edible to man, some only edible to rodents and sparrows. Cottonmouths become scarce. Females give birth to a small litter of colorful, yellow-tipped babies on hummocks during the first week of September and stay with them—perhaps to defend them—until their first shed a week later. As the first frost threatens, the snakes make their way back to winter dens, often to the same stump hole or granite outcrop used the previous year. In November, the sandhill cranes pass again—their fluting cries whispering down from the heights—and the snakes have assumed the same temperature as their winter quarters, reducing their heart rate to perhaps one beat every few hours, just to keep the blood going.

    Winters are a short and rather exciting time in a Georgia swamp, and only a few days pass when no plant or animal activity occurs. All the knotweeds and sunflowers that stood head-high in the marshes during the summer now lay pushed down like a tangled mat, making a perfect home and providing food for swamp sparrows and orange-crowned warblers. The woods provide gleanings for small flocks of titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and kinglets. Solo hermit thrushes and mobs of waxwings search for every last late-summer fruit. The sap never stops flowing down here, so sapsuckers hammer away at perfectly round sap wells all winter long. The cottonmouths stay in their holes and sleep.

    It’s difficult to develop a detailed impression of the annual cycle of snakes. You need a decent-sized population so that you can reliably encounter individuals almost every time you go out to look. For snakes this is difficult. Either the numbers are too low and dispersed, so that discerning annual patterns takes years of study, or the snakes are only available for a short time period, so a wider seasonal picture is elusive. For these reasons, we know little about the seasonal activity patterns of such snakes as long-nosed snakes, which are fairly common but widely dispersed across the western deserts. We even have an incomplete picture of the well-studied common gartersnake, since they are abundant near their hibernation dens during spring emergence, but then disperse widely into the surrounding habitats for the rest of the year. By comparing numbers of snakes encountered seasonally across decades, we can piece together general seasonal patterns for many species. Radiotelemetry studies have given us excellent insights into the seasonal activities of larger snakes. But for most species, especially some of the interesting small ones, we have only vague notions of their seasonal patterns. 

To see the rest of this chapter, 
I hope you will purchase American Snakes

Monday, October 30, 2017

The ‘Why I Wrote American Snakes’ Book Giveaway Trivia Contest Exclusively for Readers of Living Alongside Wildlife

Keep reading below the post for two chances to win a free copy of my new book American Snakes

Please enjoy this excerpt from the preface of American Snakes.

    While conducting my graduate research on cottonmouths, I walked through the swamps three or four times a week. One swamp was behind a property owned by a man named Mike Dailey. Mike is a Florida native who grew up in the swamps and woods of the South, learned to hunt and fish at an early age, and is in all but one respect the archetypal Southern outdoorsman. He has trophy deer heads on the walls of his den, along with a stuffed largemouth bass and viciously posed taxidermy fox squirrels. Mike wears rubber Wellingtons and denim overalls while making the rounds around his property, and he has a nicely kept white beard. Once he stopped me on my way up the private drive to his house and hailed me with his right hand up and the other resting on a .357 in its holster. He didn’t remember my truck and wasn’t taking any chances. Mike should despise snakes, but he doesn’t.

 Southerners are legendary snake haters. “The only good snake is a dead snake” is a common Southern phrase. Rattlesnake roundups—events for which thousands of rattlers are rounded up every year and butchered—are mostly Southern festivals. Attitudes toward snakes and other wildlife are terrible in the South. Since Mike Dailey is as Southern as they come, he should hate snakes too. But Mike Dailey likes snakes. Hell, he loves them.

Photo courtesy Noah Fields
            I don’t know how exactly Mike ended up loving snakes, but he describes growing up catching them, much to the disapproval of his parents, who thought him strange for it. He used to swim with alligators when he was a child. He once had a pet eastern diamondback rattlesnake he would pick up barehanded. I would factor in an extra 30 minutes into my research trips when accessing my study site through Mike’s property, because each time we’d shoot the breeze for a while about snakes. His house backed up to the felt-green floodplain of a Southern river that was full of snakes, the most common of which was my study animal: the venomous and dreaded cottonmouth. He was glad he had such a dense population of cottonmouths near his house. He said with pride that his swamp was where God put the first two. Can you believe this guy? He’d tell me about the snakes he’d seen lately, and maybe a funny story about some snake experience.

My favorite story he tells is about a snake he found while out hunting with a couple of buddies, neither of which knew much about snakes. He bet them a dollar that he could kill the snake with his urine. They took him up on the bet, and he proceeded to pee on the snake, which rolled over flat on its back, hung its mouth open and tongue out, and convincingly died. He collected the money from his friends, who stood slack-jawed in disbelief. The snake was an eastern hog-nosed snake—a species with a well-known death-feigning display that can be triggered by a predatory attack, a passing car, or in this case, an obscene act.

Mike wants to know everything about snakes. It is difficult to know whether he fell in love with snakes because he learned about them, or if he wanted to learn about them because he loved them. I would often tell him some things about my study. I was eager to observe courtship and mating in the population I studied, and once told him that snakes mate right after they shed their skin. His face showed surprise and he asked me a question that stuck with me.

“Where do you find all this information about snakes? Is there a book I can read to learn all this stuff?”

Photo courtesy Zack West
            I thought about it and reluctantly told Mike that I’d learned it all in scientific journals—literature that is typically only available at university libraries, and is dense, snooty stuff to read. I told him that the book he wants—a snake book that describes the everyday lives of American snakes—doesn’t exist. A readable summary of our snakes is needed for the American public, and the book we’re pushing is my attempt to deliver it.

            No matter your background, or whether you find snakes beautiful or dreadful, snakes are inherently interesting. When I bump into locals at a fishing hole, one of the first topics to come up is the local snakes. Television and Internet media have recently been fertile ground for unsubstantiated stories about giant, deadly, or disease-spreading snakes, and they run these stories because they sell. Outdoor magazines and National Geographic articles rarely fail to mention the teeming snakes present in some wild place they are covering. Snakes are among the most misunderstood and polarizing of the world’s animals, yet the fascination they hold with the public cannot be denied, and that fascination has been growing steadily for decades.

The book is also about snake people. Sprinkled throughout the manuscript are short biographies about important snake biologists. All of them are interesting, dedicated, and smart people. After knowing many of them for years, and interviewing the rest for this book, I have learned what makes a snake biologist. Most grew up outside running around catching bugs, frogs, and other slimy things until they caught their first snake. For one, an afternoon hike with grandma revealed an eastern milksnake. For another, it was a prairie kingsnake in Peoria, Illinois. A California kingsnake inspired one English major to change paths and become a successful biologist.

The reason that I’m drawn to snakes is that they are quintessential underdogs. Most of the snake biologists I spoke to said the same thing. When I was in elementary school, I wasn’t a big kid, but when the class bully tried to pick on some hapless pencil neck, I’d usually try to get in the way. This never escalated into a fight, and it’s a good thing, because I would’ve been pulverized. I’ve always looked out for underdogs. It’s the way I’ve always been. Once when I was a kid, we spotted a watersnake up in a tree. The other kids readied to shoot it with a BB gun. Remembering the Greenpeace tactics I’d seen on TV, I stood in the line of fire.

Photo Courtesy Daniel Wakefield
Despite how interesting and ecologically important they are—and really, how downright gorgeous they are—snakes have been persecuted for crimes they are not responsible for. Few people like them in the same way they do the beloved little birds and cute furry little athletic mammals. Snakes are misunderstood and mistreated, mostly owing to folklore and in large part to ancient religious stigma.

Snakes are important predatory animals and are found all over America—from the cottonmouth-infested swamps of the South to alpine meadows above 10,000 feet. They are found from the slick rock canyons of the Four Corners to the gleaming blue coast of California. Snakes are found underfoot in the rich humus of cove hardwood forests and overhead in the canopy of our oak hickory forests. They are found in our iconic deserts and rugged mountains as well as in our cities. You can see snakes in Hoboken, New Jersey, within sight of the Statue of Liberty. Snakes can be found under downed basketball backstops in Cincinnati, Ohio. And of course snakes are common in remote locations like the impenetrable no-man’s-land of Okefenokee Swamp and the burning bottom of the Grand Canyon.

American snakes are as much a part of our rich and proud natural heritage as better-loved icons like redwoods, bald eagles, and grizzly bears. They have indeed been a part of our national symbolism, and before the bald eagle became our national symbol, a rattlesnake proudly graced an American flag, warning the British, “Don’t Tread on Me.” A snake even infiltrated the ranks of our Major League Baseball teams: along with the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals, there are now the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Photo Courtesy Noah Fields
While still reviled by many Americans, the time has finally come when most people are at least curious about snakes, and the number of people who are interested in them, respect them, and love them is growing at an astonishing pace. The last time I did an outreach program with kids, I managed to get every single one to hold a snake.

The book offers a thorough explanation of the behavior, habits, and everyday lives of American snakes that is suitable for any reader. There are plenty of pretty pictures of the snakes doing their thing, and, when possible, I let the pictures speak for themselves, and try not to describe complicated behaviors with words. I’ve written it in the easiest and least technical style that I could.

It’s a proud celebration of a fascinating and diverse wildlife group, some of which are distinctly American. I hope this information will help quash some of our ignorance about snakes, leading to more snake lovers and fewer snake killers.

Mike, this book is for you.


We will randomly select one winner (all questions correct) of the trivia challenge below to receive a free copy of the book courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press! In addition, we will randomly select one non-winner, who will receive the book just for trying! Add your answers to the comment thread below the post, and we will announce the winners next week! 

Q1 = Name two snakes that share the same name as the author of American Snakes.

Q2 = Which invasive snake, covered in chapter 10 of American Snakes, is this a close up photograph of? 

Photo Courtesy J.D. Willson

Q3 = Despite John Muir’s assertion that Yellowstone National Park is above the “snake line”—too high in elevation to support snake populations—Yellowstone is home to one rattlesnake species, which is encountered in Chapter 11 of American Snakes. Which is it?

Q4 = Which native U.S. snake, part of a diverse group of “truly American snakes” discussed in Chapter 1, is this a close up of?
Photo Courtesy Pierson Hill

Q5 = Mother rattlesnakes stay with their young for a week or more after they give birth. This and other fascinating aspects of snake reproduction are covered in chapter 5 of American Snakes. How many adorable baby rattlesnakes are there in the photo?

Photo Courtesy Tim Cota