Serpents Who Slip Through Desert Sands



Yesterday I went with a friend to the Wildlife Center to attend a safe snake releasing presentation. In the southwest pit vipers/venomous snakes are routinely slaughtered whenever they are encountered. Many people have an irrational fear of snakes that drives snake extinction, even when it’s totally unnecessary.

The best part of the program for me was having the opportunity to learn how to safely pick up a rattlesnake with a snake-stick made with a simple metal hook at one end that easily slips under the upper third of the snake’s body. After completing the first step, lifting the snake off the ground and depositing it in an enclosure is a relatively simple procedure, probably because the snake is surprised to be airborne. I noted that even when the rattlesnakes were agitated, once off the ground they calmed down. The trick of course is to hook the snake in question without being bitten! It is important to wear high boots and to cover your legs with clothing that is heavy enough to repel a strike. But if the snake is hooked properly it won’t bite. I personally would like to practice this maneuver with a garter or gopher snake (like the one I saw this morning) before attempting to move a rattlesnake, but after my experience I feel reasonably confident that I could perfect this technique in time, and I like knowing that I might be able to save a snake from an unnecessary death.

Snakes are beneficial because they kill rodents that carry disease. Without the help of snakes we would be overrun by mice, rats etc. They also consume noxious insects and scorpions.

It is so important to remember that snakes are not remotely interested in making contact with humans. They are easily frightened by our presence, and of course, if a snake is cornered it will coil up, rattle its tail as a warning and prepare to strike in self –defense. We humans would do exactly the same thing if the situation were reversed.

Here in New Mexico we have a number of poisonous snakes including Diamondbacks, Western, and Mojave rattlesnakes. At this presentation I was amazed at the variations in color for all snakes (venomous or not) that reside in this area.


Above: diamondback rattlesnake

A perfect example is the Coach – whip snake that happens to be my favorite local serpent. He is fast! And he has a velvet snakeskin that can be pink, red, or a magnificent burnt copper color and sometimes he is sometimes striped. All snakes feel like smooth velvet in when touched.


Above: My favorite local serpent, the Coach -whip. Look at his beautiful eye!

Once again, I was reminded that what I needed to focus on for identification was not the variable patterns but the triangular head and the presence of a rattle.

I disagreed with the presenter on two points.

One was that snakes can’t hear. It is true that snakes don’t have ears but they are keenly aware of vibrations of any kind and react to them. Everything in nature is made up of vibrations that most of us cannot hear. Snakes do react to our voices because they create vibrations.

The second point that upset me was the presenter’s remark that snakes have poor eyesight. In my experience this simply isn’t true. It may be that snakes can’t see objects at a great distance but paying close attention to a snake’s behavior will dissolve the myth of poor eyesight. I recently had a very close encounter with a Coach -whip who was hanging upside down in a tangle of willows. I made eye contact with this animal repeatedly who watched me intently as he slipped from one twig onto another while I spoke quietly to him. It seemed to me that he was interested in looking at me from different perspectives!

If you do not want to have snakes in your yard, do not leave birdseed on the ground for mice. Remove all water sources, and keep the area around your house free of rocks or bushes under which a snake might hide.

In closing I would like to reiterate that all snakes simply want to live out their lives in peace. Snakes are not out to get us. They are benevolent creatures that keep rodents in check. Let us create space in our lives to allow them to survive.

Photos (except Coach -whip) Jeff Beeman

3 thoughts on “Serpents Who Slip Through Desert Sands

  1. Great photos and fascinating text. Plus I love the title of the piece.

    About snakes hearing though they don’t have ears: it’s like their whole body is a super-sensitive ear, maybe. They seem to pick up through their skin sound-vibrations that hit the earth. Maybe they’re picking up sound-vibrations from underground too.

    The snakes here, who used to have their ancestral home in the cellar and now live in the gully maybe 10 feet from the house, are not poisonous, but they’re mud-ugly and mean-tempered. We finally came to an arrangement with them, though: they stay out of the cellar, and Bert makes sure to rev the lawnmower before he goes near the parts of the lawn they like to lie in. They hear the mower’s engine, and they know to move into the lilac bushes.


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