During my research on Timber Rattlesnakes I ran across an article stating that the copperhead is the most common species of snake in the southeastern United States. While within the realm of possibility, it’s completely at odds with my own personal experience as an amateur herpetologist.
I became fascinated with reptiles of all kinds (especially snakes) when I was about five years old. This interest of mine was perhaps sparked during trips to Lake Barkley, one of the Kentucky Lakes where my grandfather used to take me fishing. I often found Northern Water Snakes under the loose shoreline rocks, sometimes capturing them by the dozen if the season was right – temporarily stowing them in a small white minnow bucket.
If it wasn’t those fishing trips with Granddaddy that got me into snakes, then it was probably the convergence of three creeks into a single stream in what was then our family’s backyard in south Nashville, Tennessee on the edge of Crieve Hall, near Ellington Agricultural Center. There were snakes galore back then. (In contrast, more recent expeditions into Nashville snake territory have revealed a far smaller variety of snake species.)
My excursions into nature throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama have resulted in less than five (5) positive IDs of poisonous snakes. In each case it was a Timber Rattlesnake. However, given the amount of time and all the snake sightings over the years, it’s a virtual certainty that at least a few of the many serpents that got away during all those snake hunts were poisonous snakes.
I suppose the main point I wish to convey is that poisonous snakes are not as common as one might believe. The species of snake most commonly sighted in Tennessee throughout the years (by this reptile enthusiast, at least) include the Northern Water Snake and the Gray Rat Snake.
The ubiquitous Common Garter Snake should probably grace just about any list of snakes commonly sighted in the United States; however, I’ve run across far more water snakes, if for no other reason than growing up searching in and around creeks and streams.
The most significant visual indicator that a snake might be poisonous, at first glance anyway, is a relatively thick, heavy body. In Tennessee at least, a snake that’s long and thin is far less likely to be poisonous than a snake that’s short and fat. For this reason, the Northern Water Snake is frequently mistaken to be a Water Moccasin (especially when found in or near water) or a Copperhead (due to its banded, often rusty complexion). In fact. I’d guess this water snake-for-cottonmouth assumption is the most common snake identification error in this part of the country.
But all this is not to say that caution should be thrown to the wind. IMHO, it is a major fluke – highly unusual — that a person like me who has spent such a large quantity of time over the years exploring the creeks and woods of Nashville — has somehow had so very few positive IDs of poisonous snakes.
So, please don’t approach a wild snake unless you are certain it’s not poisonous. On the other hand, please don’t harm them, either.