The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Sports

May 13, 2012

Dablemont: Some snakes will crawl off, others will bite you

OZARK, Mo. — The word naturalist, when I was a boy in the pool hall back home, meant someone who ran around naked.

The old guys on the front bench got things mixed up when a nudist colony sprang up on a river somewhere south. They called them naturalists.

Today there are some “master naturalists” being created in classrooms here and there, fully clothed authorities on the outdoors and the wild creatures that live there. I think it might cost $40 to become one and it may take two weeks of night classes to be awarded the title.

At a swap meet in Springfield last year, I met one of them. He told me a lot about how things were with wild creatures and woods and waters. He was quite a bit different than Audubon, Miner, Muir and Leopold, but you could tell he had read a lot of what some of them had written. But he lived in a suburb where the greenest part of his world was the nicely manicured lawns of his neighbors, along paved streets where they sat on porches and watched hummingbirds.

I read recently where some of those kinds of naturalists were urging people to not kill any poisonous snakes, because they “are not aggressive” and if you leave them alone “they will just crawl off.” Harmless creatures all!  

I worked for many years as a naturalist, the best of those years along the Buffalo River in Arkansas. I was paid for it; it was a profession, not a hobby. The more I learned the more amazed I was about how little I understood and how much there was to know. The books I studied in college didn’t really give anyone a true and complete picture of the natural world.  

Today I live out in the woods surrounded by a natural world, as I have all my life. I don’t even like to mow around my place much until mid-May so I won’t kill any baby rabbits, and I like those small wildflowers that erupt through the “weeds.”

My lawn doesn’t grow well because it has moles, which are also part of the natural world and should be protected, as any master naturalist would surely tell you. It is shaded by dozens of oaks and hickories, walnuts and redbuds, mulberries and hackberries. A few white oaks around me are giants, more than 200 years old. Truthfully, I wouldn’t trade those oaks for the prettiest lawn in the world.

I built a screened porch off my office and from there I watch dozens of species of birds, and mammals which never know I’m there. I went against what is natural by putting up a bluebird box last year. They began a nest this spring.

For several days I would set out on the porch just after dawn, listening for wild gobblers in the woods around me, watching that male bluebird feed his mate, who was incubating eggs.

A couple of days ago, a five-foot blacksnake ate the eggs. I hope he didn’t get the female. I still see the male out there chasing bugs (insects), but though I think they might nest again in one of the hollow trees around, I doubt they return to that box.

The black snake climbed straight up the side of a big post oak only a few yards away trying to get at another nest. A screaming bluejay tipped me off as to where he was and that tree became filled with other birds, robins, a thrush, a downy woodpecker and a tanager, and black-capped chickadees. They were all worried.

He was in a leaf-covered branch about nine feet above the ground and was all wrapped up in the leaves, hiding and waiting. I got my .22 rifle and killed him and I don’t feel a bit bad about it, integral part of nature that he was.

I don’t like black snakes, and my tolerance goes only so far. They are big and obnoxious, and will clean out nests of birds or chickens. They will eat mice all right, but also baby rabbits, and newborn Labradors if they get the chance. On occasion if I find a black snake around, I move it off into deep woods a few miles away.

But I am careful because they will indeed bite the farr out of you. I don’t know exactly what farr is, but I remember my grandpa telling me that if you fiddle with a big blacksnake he will bite the farr out of you, and sure enough, I fiddled with one and he bit the farr out of me.

I am very defensive of king snakes, which are known to kill and eat other snakes including copperheads. I have never killed a garter snake, a green snake, or a hog-nosed snake. Those smaller snakes are harmless, and meek. None of them will bite the farr out of you.

I should point out though, that a banded water snake will indeed bite the farr out of you, and they have a lot of sharp teeth. There’s an anti-coagulant in their saliva that will cause you to bleed like a stuck hog if they bite you.

I used to handle a lot of snakes, working as chief naturalist for Arkansas State Park System, and then again for the National Park Service at the Buffalo River. We’d catch several species each spring, and handle the non-poisonous ones. I never liked the water snakes nor the black snakes, though the black snakes will indeed tame readily, and in time will not bite the farr out of you.

Here at my place, I will allow all snakes to live unharmed except for black snakes and copperheads. I also destroy all red wasps that I find in my sheds and under my porch.

None of the suburban naturalists who like to urge us to let those poisonous snake just cohabitate with us out here in the woods have defended red wasps or ticks or mosquitoes. I wonder why? Most of the year, red wasps won’t cause a problem. It’s just during the months of August, and September that they sting the farr out of you.

At times, those poisonous snakes aren’t very aggressive. At times they are.

I am not writing that because I read it in a book, or had someone else tell me about them. I am saying that because if have spent a lifetime living in the woods and on the rivers. I’ve been there and seen it. Sometimes they will do one thing and sometimes they will do something else.

Last week, I killed two copperheads in my Labrador’s kennel one morning right at dawn. She is a pregnant female, and didn’t want to share her kennel with them. Now, if I killed those two copperheads when they were no threat to my Lab, which at the time they weren’t, did I break the law?

Did I break the law killing that black snake, trying to get to a bird’s nest?

Read this column next week to find the answer. At that time I will tell you about a venomous snake which is completely harmless, and gives the appearance of a monster. Can you guess what it is?

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