Gardeners' Dirt: Snakes - likely as eager to avoid you as you are them

June 19, 2014 at 1:19 a.m.
Updated June 20, 2014 at 1:20 a.m.

The only good snake is a dead snake. Does this represent your feelings about all of these slithery reptiles?

With the usual thought that most are harmful, there are really only four species that are poisonous - 15, if you count their subspecies - in this rather large and diverse state they consider their home.

Poisonous snakes in Texas

The four species of poisonous snakes in Texas are the cottonmouth - often called a water moccasin - rattlesnake, copperhead and coral snake. The first three are pit vipers, which can be identified by their triangular-shaped heads, eyes with elliptical, cat-eye-like pupils, pits on each side of the head between each eye and the nostrils and their thicker, heavier bodies.


The cottonmouth is a very heavy-bodied snake that averages 20 to 30 inches long, although it can reach up to 5 feet in length. It is dark black, brown or olive with dark, wide bands encircling its body. It's primarily seen near bodies of water. Its common name refers to the white tissue inside its mouth, which it displays when it feels threatened. The cottonmouth is more likely than the other three poisonous snakes to be aggressive, so give it a wide berth.


The rattlesnake is another large, heavy-bodied snake that can reach up to 7 feet in some subspecies. Nearly every Texas county has at least one resident subspecies. The rattlesnake is not usually aggressive, unless it's disturbed. Its main characteristic is its rattle, which often warns of its presence.


The third pit viper is the copperhead, which is quite common in Victoria County. Its name comes from its copper-colored body markings, which makes it extremely difficult to detect among oak leaves and other vegetation. It, too, is rather stout-bodied. It is not aggressive, but rather sluggish and not as likely to run away, depending on its ability to camouflage itself as its main defense. Unfortunately, many copperhead bites occur when a snake is stepped on because it wasn't seen.

Coral snake

The fourth poisonous snake species found in Texas, the coral snake, is a relative of the cobra. But don't look for it to stand up and flair its neck like the cobra you've seen in the movies dancing to the snake charmer's melody in India. The coral snake is going to try to make a hasty escape and is easily identified.

It's fairly short - between 2 to 21/2feet or shorter - and slender, with bright red, black and yellow rings diagonally encircling its body. While these three colors also appear on other nonpoisonous snakes, the coral snake is the only one whose red and yellow rings touch.

As a child, I memorized the saying: "Red and yellow kill a fellow; red and black venom lack," and it still helps me recognize a coral snake when I encounter it.

The coral snake has a very small mouth, which makes it unlikely to bite an adult unless it's a toe or finger. But extra precautions should be taken especially with small children, since the venom of the coral snake is the most toxic of the four snakes. It attacks the nervous system.

Personal Encounters

My husband and I, both Master Gardeners, moved with our family to a few acres in the country near Mission Valley more than 40 years ago.

In all these years, we have encountered three of the four poisonous species on our property at one time or another. Fortunately, the rattlesnake has not, to my knowledge, been seen in our area - at least not by us.

Because we have a pond on our property and a seasonal creek running through it, we have encountered a few cottonmouths and an occasional coral snake, but the copperhead is by far the most commonly seen of the poisonous snakes on our property.

Avoidance Best Defense

But snakes, both poisonous and nonpoisonous, do have a redeeming purpose - to keep our rodent and insect pests in check. However, because I am not particularly fond of snakes in general, I try to avoid all snakes when possible without having to stay indoors 24/7.

Avoidance is probably the best defense for everyone, because it's often difficult to differentiate between some poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes without getting too close for comfort.

One thing that makes this possible is the fact that most snakes are as eager to avoid us as we are to avoid them. Follow the guidelines included with this article, which we have tried through the years living in or near their natural habitat.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at



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