Back when I was a kid in the hills of southern Ohio, there were lots of  poisonous snakes, and since we ran those hills like little savages we had to quickly learn to avoid the fairly common timber rattlesnakes and even more common copperheads.  We learned to take care around rockpiles which both species favored for sunning, and be very careful near fallen trees, slab piles, wood piles, and old abandoned houses with rusted farm machinery and tall grass, all of which held lots of mice which both species eat.

And I’m sorry to say we killed them at every opportunity.  In fact, it was almost a national sport in those days and many killed every snake they saw, even including garter snakes and harmless little grass snakes.  I wasn’t that bad, but now and then I gathered up a few young friends and our .22 rifles and went hunting for poisonous snakes.  We usually found some.

There were accidental encounters even with constant awareness.  My dad nearly stepped on a 3 foot copperhead while heading up our hill to feed the chickens, and my uncle one day raked up fallen leaves and a copperhead, which bit him.  I once had a small timber rattler crawl between my feet in a brushpile, and pulled a copperhead onto my shoes while digging worms for fishing.  Lots of snakes in those days  

They have quite a history in Ohio.  Rattlesnake Island in Lake Erie was named for its huge rattlesnake population (they’re extinct now), and Indians who paddled to South Bass Island seeking deer and small game had to hunt with great care.  But today the reptiles are scarce and on the endangered species list, persecuted and killed to the point where only remnant populations are left.

The closest poisonous snakes to our area (Richland County Ohio) are swamp rattlers or massasaugas.  These are little grey to black rattlesnakes that have small populations at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area and the Willard Wildlife Area.  I’ve heard that a few survive in Lake Erie swamps and backwaters, too.  They’re secretive snakes, very non-aggressive and prone to slip away when humans arrive, and when they rattle it’s more an insect buzz than a full scale western diamondback rattle. So, when you hear one, you’re likely not to notice.

Timber rattlers are mostly restricted to southern and southeastern Ohio, and the few that are left survive in places like Zaleski, Scioto, Pike, and Tar Hollow state parks.  They’ll average 3-4 feet, and might reach 6.  It’s an interesting fact that these poisonous snakes almost never rattle unless harassed and aroused.  Biologists believe that the nervous types that rattled were all killed, and those who didn’t survived.

Copperheads?  They’re the most common poisonous snakes in the state, but still very rare.  Many are almost pinkish in color, but all have the classic copper colored head and make their living in southern and southeastern Ohio timber country, fields, and farm land.  I remember these best because my mother, knowing I was snake-wise, would send me into a blackberry thicket first or the family garden to chase out or kill any copperheads laying there.

What’s the point of all this?  The Ohio Division of Wildlife is making a serious effort to sustain and even increase the populations of all three snakes.  They’ve put transmitters on several swamp rattlers at Killdeer Plains, and are studying their movements to learn more about these secretive creatures.  The DOW is also purchasing critical habitat to sustain remnant populations of all three pit vipers.  And they’re asking “Please, do not kill remaining members of this tiny population.” 

The snakes belong here, just as rabbits and squirrels do, and they do good work in helping control mice.  They’re not going to kill anybody, either.  In fact the last person to die of snake bite was a woman who died in 1947, this after delaying treatment for days.  You’re not likely to see one on those hunting, fishing, and camping trips, but if you do, walk away.  They have a right to live, too.

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One Comment to “Help Save Ohio's Tiny Population of Poisonous Snakes”

  1. James says:

    Not sure how old this post is, but I live in Southern Ohio… in fact, a city named South Point (the southern most point of Ohio, and the Copperhead population is still as aggressive as it ever was. I personally see around a dozen a year just around my house. I don’t kill them, but do shew them away, for my children’s sake, and toss mothballs in my shed to keep them out… I think it helps. I also wanted to comment on the Timber Rattlers… there are several around the Wayne County area in WV, where I have went to summer camp since I was a kid. We typically sesen at least one or two during our 6 days there in the summertime… I would imagine there are more hiding about the wooded areas.