Snakes are Friends – The Break Down to Dispel Serpent Hysteria

Snakes have a fearsome reputation for being among the worlds most dangerous animals, with numerous species being the cause of death of many human lives. This reputation has created a hysteria and has generated a far reaching snake phobia. This phobia is especially evident in Australia, which is known to be home to some of the most venomous snakes in the world. This hysteria surrounding snakes has led to many common myths and fears which simply are not true. This article will debunk common myths, identify the most common situations of how people get bitten, how to stay safe, and we will also delve into the snakes mind of how it is perceiving each situation so you understand its reactions and behaviors in response to your actions.

 

Eastern Marsh Snake (Hemiaspis signata) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Eastern Marsh Snake (Hemiaspis signata) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

Disclosure: All photos of snakes being handled were for scientific or rescue orientated purposes and were preformed by experienced snake handlers that have undergone venomous snake handling training courses. Please do not try any of the mentioned techniques of venomous snake handling. If you wish to learn the skills mentioned, please apply to do a venomous snake handling course. Email gumnutnaturalist@gmail.com for information. Even the most experienced snake handlers are putting themselves at risk when handling venomous snakes so do not handle them if there is no need to!

 

Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

The biggest myth is: Venomous snakes are aggressive.

This statement implies that the snake is out to get you. This simply is not true. Snakes are not aggressive they are defensive. They will defend themselves against a perceived threat. A snake will only strike you for one reason: If it feels its life is in danger. If a venomous snake bites you there is a chance it will give a dry bite. A ‘dry bite’ is a bite where the snake does not inject any venom as venomous snakes can control the amount of venom it injects. But once again the more in danger it feels, the more likely it will strike to envenomate. The fact of the matter is that a venomous snake will only use its venom in self defense if it feels there is no other way, as it is incredibly costly to the snake to waste its venom. The reason behind this is because venom is essential in the process of digesting food and takes a lot of time and energy to create.

The most common scenarios people get bitten by a snake are:

1. When attempting to kill the snake – Of course the snake will try to bite and envenomate you if you are attempting to kill it. It has perceived that it is in a lie or death situation and will proceed accordingly: by trying to bite and pump as much venom in you as possible. Wouldn’t you expend all the resources you had if you were faced with a life or death situation? This is the most common way people are bitten.

2. When attempting to pick up the snake – Once again the snake feels it is in a life or death situation. It isn’t aware that your intentions are to simply pick it up. How would you feel if a lion grabbed you in its paws? The lions intentions may only be to play with you and not kill you but you would regardless have a large shot of Adrenalin pumping and rightly so feel like you are in a life or death situation, and defend yourself accordingly.

Snake handling needs to be left to the professionals. If you don’t need to pick up the snake, then don’t. Even the professionals usually get bitten one day. There are techniques which snake handlers use to capture venomous snakes which include ‘heading’ or ‘necking’, ‘tailing’ and ‘hooking’. The risk is greater when heading a snake (grabbing it behind the head) than tailing a snake (grabbing it by the tail). Snakes like the Death Adders should never be tailed but can be caught with a snake hook. Catching a snake is incredibly risky and requires intensive venomous snake handling training to properly master. If you want to learn this skill it is highly recommended to attend a snake handling course before attempting to handle any venomous snakes.

 

George Madani demonstrating the heading or necking technique of snake handling. Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

George Madani demonstrating the heading or necking technique of snake handling. Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Chad Beranek using the tailing technique of handling a snake. Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2014

Chad Beranek using the tailing technique of handling a snake. Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2014

Chad Beranek demonstrating how a Death Adder can be picked up with a hook. Please excuse the excited look on my face, Death Adders are exciting | Copyright Brooke Thompson 2015

Chad Beranek demonstrating how a Death Adder can be picked up with a hook. Please excuse the excited look on my face, Death Adders are exciting | Copyright Brooke Thompson 2015

 

3. When accidentally disturbing the snake – This one sometimes can’t be avoided but can be minimised by paying particular care when working out doors or strolling in the bush. The most common scenario of accidentally disturbing a snake is when you step on a snake. When this occurs it is often that the snake could sense you approaching and decided to stay still to avoid your attention, sometimes though the snake is oblivious to your approach. Both instances are very frightening to the snake and often warrant them to attack in self defense, often striking the object that lands on them: your foot. The easiest way to prevent this from happening is to wear protective shoes.

Other instances of accidentally disturbing a snake include while gardening or lifting up an object a snake is under. Both of these can, once again, be avoided by ensuring to wear proper safety apparel and being careful and perceptive in areas that are known to be home to snakes.

4. Cornering a snake – Many people often accidentally corner a snake and then interpret the snakes reaction as being aggressive. The snake in this situation feels it is a life or death situation as it is cornered, or it’s main escape route is being blocked, and feels it has to fight for its life. Once again you behave in a similar manner if put in the same situation. If you encounter a snake, ensure to step back to give it plenty of room so that the snake doesn’t feel cornered.

 




 

Southern Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Southern Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

So what should you do if you encounter a snake in the bush, or better yet, in your backyard?

In most scenarios the solution with the least amount of risk and danger is to leave it alone. If you are in the bush and run into a snake, if you keep your distance an just leave it alone it will just go on and keep doing its own thing. If a snake enters your garden, ensure that you inform all persons in the residence of the snakes presence and make sure to keep kids and pets away from the snake. Monitor the snakes movements from a distance. Almost every time the snake will leave at its own accord. Occasionally snakes can accidentally find themselves wandering indoors. If this occurs, once again inform all residents and keep an eye on the snake from a distance. Call a wildlife rescue organisation or a professional snake wrangler and be sure to show them where exactly the snake is.

Some last tips and summary

  • Don’t try to identify the snake if you have limited experience. Treat all snakes as potentially deadly and be cautious. It’s only a white facial marking that can determine a Whip Snake from a Brown Snake!
  • Don’t attempt to kill or pick up the snake if you don’t have to. These are by far the most risky actions you can take!
  • Be aware of accidentally cornering a snake or blocking off it’s escape route if you encounter one
  • In almost all scenarios it’s best to leave it alone
  • If it enters your house: alert residence, keep kids and pet away, watch where the snake is at all times and call a professional to handle it

 

Snakes are friends! Not the kind of friend you hug but they hunt pests like rats and mice, and often form an important link in the food chain. I have a challenge for you for the next time you encounter a snake: Simply keep a far distance and follow it around and watch its behaviour. They really are fascinating creatures which deserve more respect and less fear. Many of them are cute! Surely you can’t say this Bandy Bandy isn’t cute?

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Comment below on any close encounters you have had with snakes that tried to bite you and see if you can categorise it in the four categories above. I am confident every situation where a snake is attempting to bite you falls into one of the four categories. In a months time we shall look in depth at venomous snake identification and shed light on other less known species which are otherwise harmless and cop harsh punishment for being wrongly identified as Brown Snakes!

A Quick Guide to Common Rails of Sydney

Just to make it clear for people who aren’t familiar with aquatic birds, a ‘rail’ is the common term given to birds within the Rallidae family which also include coots and swamp hens. They are birds which are adapting to swim and stalk in marshes and reeds. Most healthy wetlands will attract one of the species of rail which rely on aquatic vegetation for the staple of their diet.

The rails that you are most likely to see are:

  • Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
  • Dusky Moor Hen (Gallinula tenebrosa)
  • Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

 

The largest of the rails around Sydney is the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). This conspicuous prehistoric looking bird can be told a part from other rails easily by the size (much larger than the other rails reaching almost 50 cm tall) along with the purple/blue sheen across the neck and belly. The Purple Swamphen requires heavily vegetated wetlands with plenty of sun light. Like the other rails, the Purple Swamphens have a confused and complex mating system. Some times the birds pair up, some times their is co-operative raising of the young by other younger individuals in the family group, where all birds contribute time into egg incubation and nest protection. During spring and early summer you may also witness the antics of the males fighting for dominance, with raucous screams and viscous confrontations. The looser is often chased away.

Some easy spots to see these birds include Audley in the Royal National Park and most of the freshwater wetlands within Sydney Olympic Park.

 

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The other rail you are likely to see and which is probably the most common of the three is the Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa). This rail is smaller than the Purple Swamphen, reaching a maximum of 40 cm tall. This bird is easily distinguished from the Purple Swamphen as it lacks the purple/blue sheen and also has a yellow tipped beaked in contrast to the entirely red colored beak of the swamphen (See photo below).

 

Left - Dusky Moorhen, Right - Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

Left – Dusky Moorhen, Right – Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

 

The Dusky Moorhen enjoys heavily vegetated wetlands were they forage on aquatic plants. Like the Purple Swamphen, the Dusky Moorhen also has a complicated mating system involving communal nesting. Many of the Dusky Swamphen populations in Sydney currently have babies with them.

Some easy spots to see this very common rail include Sydney Olympic Park, the wetland in Louisa Reserve in Bass Hill, Tudar Road wetland in Bonnet Bay, Audley in the Royal National Park, even Camelia Gardens in Caringbah has recently had some Dusky Moorhens move in and successfully raise babies their! This rail species seems to be one of the first wetland birds to move in to newly created wetlands (not including ducks).

 

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Mother Moorhens feeding babies | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Mother Moorhens feeding babies Persicaria sp. flower buds | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The last rail which is commonly seen is the unique Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra). This rail is easily distinguished from the others as it bears a white beak contrasting with completely black plumage. This bird is perhaps more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle as they have strange webbed feet which is one of their most striking features when you get a closer look. The Eurasian Coot is very adaptable in its foraging and may forage on land, dabble in water or even dive for food. They will eat aquatic vegetation, insects, even birds eggs if they find them. They nest in talls reeds which have died or have been flattened out, where they lay a few young. The young of the Eurasian Coot have a tough life as they are frequently the target of predators such as herons and egrets. Their survival is also at risk from their own parents who are known to be very tough on the hatchlings. If they have no food for them and the young keep begging they will prod their young harshly, sometimes killing them.

 

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Some good spots to see this quite common rail species is in Audley, Sydney Olympic Park and Louisa Reserve in Ball Hill.

If you want to see all three of these rails in one day its best to check out the various wetlands in Sydney Olympic Park or the Audley Lagoon in the Royal National Park. Both of these locations have many extra amazing bird life surprises. Hopefully this post has given you enough information to ID some of your local wetland birds!