ood news, bad news and advice to snake handlers

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have some good news to report relating to snakes.

Dr. Craig Guyer, Auburn’s official herpetologist, told me he saw an eastern kingsnake in his neighborhood in a semi-rural area south of Auburn. He also said he’s received reports of four other sightings of the kingsnakes in Lee County.

Eastern kingsnakes are black with yellow rings and can reach lengths of more than six feet. They prey on other snakes, including rattlesnakes and copperheads.

I saw a sub-adult eastern kingsnake on my property last year, suggesting that a breeding population exists on the premises.

Whether it’s because of kingsnakes or for some other reason, copperheads on my property must have declined since last year, when my dogs, one of which was bitten on three separate occasions, located six. This year the dogs have not alerted me to the presence of a single copperhead.

Anyone encountering a shiny black snake with yellow rings should leave it be or, if it is in a place where it is likely to be killed, relocate it to a safer place. We should do all we can to help this beneficial snake make a comeback from the brink of extirpation.

An observation I regret to report is a serious decline in the moths of the family Sphingidae, commonly called hawk moths or hummingbird moths. One species, the catalpa sphinx, is, or was, the provider of its larvae, catalpa worms, which were widely used for fish baits.

As a youngster in Tennessee, my friends and I used the worms to fish for bream during the day and for catfish at night. They were plentiful during the warm season; just about every catalpa tree had the caterpillars feeding on their leaves.

A few years ago, I attempted to find the worms on some catalpa trees in and around Auburn but was unsuccessful.

Other evidence of a decline in sphingid moths is how few hornworms I’ve seen in recent years on my tomato plants. Tomato hornworms are the larvae of a sphingid moth, a species related to the catalpa sphinx. Not long ago, I would have to remove quite a few hornworms from my tomato plants to prevent defoliation. Last year, I saw only two hornworms and this year I saw only one.

Also seldom seen now is a smaller sphingid moth, the once common clearwing hummingbird moth, which I used to see frequently hovering around the flowers of abelia shrubs.

Last week a 52-year-old Cherokee County man died as a result of a rattlesnake bite. Details concerning the man’s encounter with the snake were not reported (as of Sept. 29). I assume the snake was a timber, or canebrake, rattler.

The only other fatality in Alabama resulting from a snakebite in recent years was in 2004. In that instance a man was bitten by a copperhead in or around Saugahatchee Creek north of Loachapoka. From all indications he was hyperallergic to the snake’s venom.

Fatalities from venomous snake bites in the United States are rare, averaging between five and ten annually. Bitten individuals are occasionally handling the snakes. Since 1950 six people have died from bites suffered by handlers during religious ceremonies, the latest occurring in 2012 in West Virginia. Religious snake handlers, and anyone else “free-handling” venomous snakes, would be wise to adhere to the following recommendations to minimize the chance of being bitten.

First, when capturing the snakes, avoid traumatizing them to the extent possible. Treat them gently and never use tongs to grasp or seize them behind the head. Use a golf putter or similar device and lift them into a suitable container.

Second, gently transfer the snakes into cages lined with newspaper, and never, ever use wood shavings. Keep the snake in seclusion for several days, and when it is to be handled, lift it carefully from the cage and allow it to crawl onto your hand or arm and do not restrain it.

Finally, never wave it around or make any fast motions that the snake might consider threatening. If bitten, seek medical attention immediately.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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