There may be no creature on the planet that creeps people out more than snakes.
Snakes are the last thing you want to find in your yard or garden, much less in your house. Unfortunately, there's no sure-fire way to keep snakes out of your landscape short of building a castle-like wall around your property.
But don't despair.
"There are things that you can do to help reduce the attractiveness of your garden or home for snakes," said Chris Petersen, co-chair for Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC), a network for anyone who has an interest in conserving and managing amphibians and reptiles and their habitats. The network includes employees of zoos, museums, environmental consulting agencies and universities, people who work in state or federal agencies or conservation groups and home gardeners, among others.
The things home owners can do to ward off snakes, Petersen said, fall into two general categories. The first is removing places where they can hide; the second is removing food sources.
Remove hiding places
"The first thing I tell people is keep your grass cut to a short or reasonable length," said Petersen, who is also a Navy biologist. "Snakes are cautious about traveling across groomed grass because it exposes them to predators, particularly raptors such as hawks and owls."
The next thing he said homeowners should do is reduce or remove places where snakes like to hide. One of these is under bushes. "Keep bushes and shrubs around your house and garden trimmed up, particularly on the bottom where you are not providing areas where snakes can get in there and hide," he advised. In addition, ground cover plants, such as ivy and pachysandra, also provide cover for snakes. Try to limit the use of these plants in your garden or keep them restricted to a limited area.
Unused mulch piles or a very thick layer of hardwood or pine straw mulch (greater than six inches) can also provide hiding places for snake species. Try to limit the use of mulch to what's needed to reduce weeds, Petersen added.
Another landscape feature to be aware of are large rocks stacked on top of each other. He suggests avoiding these because snakes can find little crevices under and between them that give them an excellent place to stay cool and hide.
Still another favorite hiding place is in firewood piles. "What I would suggest, is putting 4x4s on the ground and building your woodpile on top of that so the logs aren't sitting directly on the ground." It's also a good practice to keep the firewood pile as from the house as possible.
When it comes to your house, Petersen said homeowners should make a visual inspection of the foundation to look for possible entry points for snakes. "Snakes will get under your house if they can because it provides cover for them," he said. Be sure to seal cracks or openings around air vents and other areas that a snake could get through and take up residence in the crawl space. And as creepy as it sounds, once there, it's easy for them to crawl up studs and find access to the living space.
"Because snakes have a slender body, they are very good at getting through tight spaces. In fact, an averaged-sized snake can squeeze through an opening less than an inch in diameter."
Another access point for snakes to get under the house could be a door to a crawl space. In some cases, a builder might place a crawl space door over the center of cinderblocks turned up so there are open areas in front and in back of the door. That could create a pathway for a snake to crawl down one side and up the other and easily get into the crawl space. Sealing these openings with a simple and inexpensive cement mix will deny a snake this access point.
Further up on the house, check the clothes dryer vent to see if it's in an area where a snake might be able to crawl in and gain access to the house. If your vent is in a place where a snake might enter, consider putting a screen over the vent.
"Snakes are carnivores, though some will feed on insects, so they are primarily seeking out rodents such as mice, moles, rats and even birds," said Petersen. There are a couple of things homeowners can do to help prevent attracting rodents and, thus, snakes.
One is to avoid leaving an available cat or dog food outdoors. "That will bring in the rodents, which will bring in the snakes," said Petersen. It's okay to feed your pets outdoors, just remember to remove any uneaten food.
Something else that attracts rodents are any objects that might provide cover. These objects include anything that sits around in one place for a long time, such as a piece of plywood, a lawnmower or an old car. "These objects provide cover for rodents, and they will build nests under them," said Petersen. "That brings in snakes as well."
Homeowners might be surprised to learn that bird feeders create another food source that attracts snakes. "Birds can be messy eaters that fling seed around," he said. "Seed will lay on the ground, and that will bring in rodents as well." Petersen advises moving bird feeders as far away from your house as you can.
What type of habitats attract snakes?
The geography around your home can make you more prone to an unwanted encounter with a snake, according to Petersen.
"Let's say, for example, if you have mature forests around your home, you would have a good opportunity to see a rat snake, a ring-necked snake or a garter snake," said Petersen. But let's say, for example, you have an open grassland or shrub land habitat. In those cases. you have a good chance of seeing a black racer or a king snake."
"If you are near a wetland habitat, maybe a freshwater marsh, swamp or stream, you'll certainly have the opportunity for many species of water snakes. On the East Coast, we have several different species … a northern water snake, a plain-bellied water snake and brown water snakes, to name a few. They are very common." These wet habitats also create environments for the venomous moccasin, also known as the cottonmouth.
Other venomous snake species people might encounter include rattlesnakes (20 U.S. species), copperhead and coral snakes. These species live in a variety of habitats including deserts, prairies and forests. It has been estimated that between 7,000-8,000 people a year are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States, Petersen said, adding that fatalities from snake bites are uncommon. In fact, he said, more people die from wasp and bee stings, dog bites and lightning each year than from snake bites.
The bottom line, he added, is that the type of snake you might encounter depends on your location, the specific habitat and what species are active in the area where you live.
What draws snakes out of habitats and into people's yards?
A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) seen in a pine woodland habitat. These snakes move around during their mating season in July and August, a more likely time that you might run into one. (Photo: Kristian Bell/Shutterstock)
There are several things that Petersen said can prompt snakes to begin moving and increase the likelihood that you may encounter one.
"First, male snakes search for females during mating periods," Petersen said. "So that will increase the opportunity that a snake will wind up in your yard." Mating seasons vary by species, but generally take place in the spring and summer. That is especially true for timber rattlesnakes in July and August, which is their mating season. Male rattlesnakes will move hundreds of meters a day searching for females, and that's when they usually wind up crossing roads and coming into people's yards and gardens, Petersen said.
The second is food. "Snakes want a good meal, so they will search for food in areas where they think they can find prey." Reducing the availability of food around your house and garden will reduce the change of a snake being in your yard.
The third thing is just finding suitable places to live. This is particularly true as fall begins turning to winter and snakes search for places to hibernate. Snakes typically hibernate in the ground or in stump holes where they can avoid freezing temperatures.
What to do if you see a snake
A logical question you may be asking yourself is, what do I do if I see a snake? Petersen urges you to avoid your first instinct, which may be to kill it.
"Most people are bitten when trying to kill or handle a snake. My recommendation — if you are not sure what species you are encountering in your yard, garden or home — is to assume that it is venomous and to be very cautious around it but opt for a non-lethal way to resolve the situation," Petersen advised. One of the best ways to get a snake to move on is to spray it with a hose. "That will encourage it to keep moving and not settle down. It's an opportunity to get the snake out of a particular area without killing it or handling it."
Unfortunately, most people want to grab a shovel and hit it in the head. That's a bad idea, he contends, because snakes play an important ecological role in environments, serving both as predators and prey. Snakes eat many species of rodents, which are generally considered pests, and also are prey to animals such as raptors (owls and hawks), foxes and bears. "When you have snakes in your environment, that represents a healthy ecosystem. It's important to have them around because they provide ecological value." For example, he pointed out, there's some evidence that suggests snakes play a role in reducing Lyme disease (a disease carried by ticks) because they eat mice (and the ticks on them). Additionally, snake venom is used in clinical trials to test the value of venom-derived products to treat stroke.
To determine which species you might see, Petersen recommends visiting websites of state wildlife agencies, universities or local herpetology clubs. "They always have great information about reptiles for their states on their websites and will certainly specify which species are venomous."
(For example, here's a well-done site to help residents of Virginia identify snakes: Virginia Herpetological Society.)
Gardeners should also remember there can be benefits to having snakes in your garden. "There's a species of snake called Dekay's brown snake," he said. "It's a secretive snake species, about foot long at maturity, and they eat garden pests like slugs and snails. They are actually pretty good to have in your garden. Of course, rat snakes eat rodents that eat the roots of your plants. So snakes do have a very important ecological role."