You can gather a lot of fanciful stories related to snakes, some very weird but true, others totally false. This article is about four of the more common falsehoods about four often seen snakes here in the Deep South. As a former teacher and Okefenokee Swamp lover, I think the more you can know about the wildlife of the region, the more likely you are to be unduly afraid. Therefore, the more you should be able to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature.
Four Snake Tales Which Are NOT True
The world is full of "snake tales" some true and some very much not true. Growing up in the rural south near the Okefenokee Swamp I have heard many wild ideas about snakes.
Four False Tales
1. Coachwhip snake
THE TALE: As a child growing up in the Deep South, I was always taught to avoid the coachwhip snake and if I saw one I was to walk away quickly. The tale was that he would chase you, wrap around your legs and whip you violently with his tail and hurt you. To a small child this was very frightening!
THE TRUTH: This snake will NOT catch you and whip you!! The proper name is the Eastern coachwhip or the scientific name is Masticophis flagellum flagellum. He is considered to be one of the fastest snakes in the Southern USA and can grow as long as 8 feet or so. Though they are usually 4-6 feet long. If cornered they will vibrate their tail against the leaves on the ground to frighten you away. They will strike if threatened and it will probably hurt since they tend to have strong jaws. They hunt during daylight hours and eat other snakes (even poison ones), large insects, lizards, birds, and small rodents. They are NOT poisonous. A good site to look up more information is: http://srelherp.uga.edu/snakes/masfla.htm
2. Hoop Snake
THE TALE: I was taught as a child that this snake would roll himself into a hoop shape by grabbing his tail in his mouth and that he would roll down the road or across a field to escape danger. Some believed that he would chase you using this technique.
THE TRUTH: The simple truth is that stories of this snake are fiction. Though, honestly, I believed them as a child and into adulthood! Scientists have never been able to prove that these actually exist. At one point a $10,000 reward was offered to anyone who could prove their existence. There is at least one internet site which has a funny article about Hoop snakes and claims they came into the US from New Zealand. Don’t believe it! If you will find and read that article, you will see that it is not true and is written for laughs.
3. Milk Snake
THE TALE: As a child I was taught that this snake would sneak into a farmer’s barn and nurse at the udders of milk cows, which would deprive the farmer of milk. They were also rumored to nurse off of cows which had calves which would mean less milk for the calf.
THE TRUTH: Now this snake does exist, BUT it doesn’t drink milk from a cow’s udders! It is a type of King snake. The scientific name is Lampropeltis triangulum. There are 24 sub species of this type of snake. These snakes seem to make docile pets and many people keep one for a pet of sorts. You can even find “How to Care for Milk Snakes” handouts and instructions online. King snakes typically eat other snakes or small rodents.
4. Cotton Mouthed Moccasin (DANGER HERE!)
THE TALE: Some people believe that these snakes cannot bite underwater.
THE TRUTH: These snakes CAN bite underwater! Furthermore they are venomous! They catch fish to eat as well as frogs. They can grow as large as 6 feet but many are usually in the 4 foot range. They are nasty tempered and will open their mouth as a warning at you. When they display this type behavior you see the strikingly white inside of their mouth which is why they are called cotton mouths. They do not tend to run away when confronted by people and they will strike out quickly if you go near them. They are usually found in or near water. Even their young ones are venomous, so don’t play with these things! Stay away! (The thumbnail photo for this article shows a cottonmouth about to cross a road near the Okefenokee Swamp.)
Here is a link to more information: http://www.cottonmouthsnake.org/
Most snakes in the US are not poisonous; however you should treat all snakes with respect and not disturb them. Most of them are beneficial and help keep populations of rats, mice, frogs, toads, and other small creatures in check. Enjoy looking at them, photograph them, but let them go their way. Even the bite of a non-poisonous snake can become infected and cause you problems.