Houston is a huge modern metropolis and sometimes it's difficult to remember that the city was originally founded on the banks of the bayou systems winding through town, and that despite all of the concrete, highways, and huge buildings, wildlife is still living throughout the area. While residents of greater Houston are likely to encounter furry creatures like possums and raccoons foraging through their garbage, there are well over 100 varieties of snakes in Texas, and 34 that make this part of Texas home. Anyone who spends a few years living in Houston or the surrounding area is likely to encounter at least one of them at some point.
To some people that's just one of the things they accept about living here. Like mosquitos and hot summers, snakes just go with the territory, but to others, the idea of running into a member of the local serpent population while landscaping their yard is an alarming proposition.
The bad news is that there are four species of venomous snakes in the United States, and the Greater Houston area is home to all of them. The good news is that not all of them are common, and encountering some of them in town would be extremely rare.
There are small burrowing snakes that one might occasionally find in their garden, and also woodland and water snakes. Common varieties a person living in the Greater Houston area might encounter in their yard are Rat Snakes, Kingsnakes, the Eastern Hognose, the Rough Green Snake, and Garter Snakes. Those folks living near bodies of water, which in Houston is a lot of us, might also spot the Broad Banded Water Snake, the Diamondback Water Snake, and several other kinds of non venomous snakes living in or in the water.
Since Houston and the surrounding area is home to so many non venomous snake varieties, it's beyond the scope of this article to identify them all. It is probably more effective to identify the venomous snakes that make a home in the this part of Texas, and learn how to avoid contact with them.
Lets look at some of the venomous snakes a person living in the Greater Houston area might stumble across.
When I was a small child, my family's terrier attacked and killed a Copperhead that was living in a sandbox I played in, so they mark my personal first brush with a venomous snake. They tend to be light brown or tan with darker bands crossing their backs. They are numerous in the Houston area, and while their bite is venomous, its toxicity is considered relatively low. Southern Copperheads like to inhabit wooded areas, and are often spotted in parks or wooded yards. They will often shelter themselves under piles of brush or rocks, and can provide a nasty surprise to humans that poke around their habitat without taking precautions. They tend to be small to medium sized, generally topping out at about 36 inches.
Jared Kirby, a friend and snake authority, says encounters with Copperheads can often be avoided.
"Most confrontations can be avoided altogether by being watchful and trying to avoid walking through tall grass. When you have to venture into areas where you are likely to find them, your best bet is to wear boots and jeans for protection. I'd venture to guess that most Copperhead bites are from people stepping on them while barefoot or wearing flip flops."
3. Western Cottonmouth
This snake, commonly referred to as the "Water Moccasin" is another fairly common in this area, particularly along places close to a body of water. They are usually fairly stout, and either dark brown or nearly black, with markings along their backs. Cottonmouths resemble other water snakes, and have a fairly nasty reputation as being aggressive and quick to strike. I spent part of my childhood growing up in a rural area outside of Houston which was located along a creek, and encountered Water Moccasins on a nearly daily basis. Occasionally when the water was really high, they would climb into the branches of low laying trees, which was always an unpleasant surprise. But that was in the country. Years later, I was shocked when I spotted something large and dark laying in the street in front of my house in the Heights. I approached it expecting to find a small pile of trash, and realized that it was a rather large snake instead. Even then, my first thoughts were that it must be a fake snake made of rubber, until it suddenly moved when I was about ten feet away. In any case, I suddenly understood that snakes like Water Moccasins didn't respect city boundaries, and they adapt to city living just fine. These guys range in size from about two to three feet in length, although bigger ones are occasionally found.
Kirby feels that Cottonmouths have an unfortunate reputation, but that it's not entirely their fault.
"They would much rather crawl or swim away than become involved in an altercation with a person. The chances of an encounter with them is unfortunately higher due to the active manner in which they hunt. Unlike Rattlesnakes or Copperheads, Cottonmouths spend a great deal of time on the move in and around local waterways like the bayous, searching for prey.
Despite their mobile form of hunting, Jared still maintains that humans are usually more dangerous to Cottonmouths than the other way around, and that people should just avoid snakes in the wild, allowing them to go about their business.
"Many other snakes mimic the Cottonmouths' appearance, and almost every picture I see posted online of a "Water Moccasin" that's been killed by someone is just some harmless Water Snake or Hognose. If a you see a snake of any kind, just leave it the Hell alone. It will work out great for all parties involved."
Although this might be the most iconic of all the snakes in the United States, and there are huge numbers of them throughout Texas, finding one in Harris County would be extremely unusual, though not impossible. I've never heard of anyone encountering one in the wild in Houston, so chances are no Rattlesnakes are going to find their way into someone's flower bed inside the city. However, several varieties of Rattlesnakes do live in places like Galveston Island or Brazoria and other areas near enough to Houston, so be aware they're "out there". Rattlesnakes that might be living in surrounding areas include the Western Pygmy, the Timber Rattlesnake, and the Western Diamondback. Many years ago I accidentally peed right next to one, when I stopped off for an emergency improvised roadside rest stop outside of Ellinger one night. The dark shape I'd mistaken for a small pile of rocks a few feet away started to rattle indignantly, and I walked backwards and away. Very slowly...
1. Texas Coral Snake
This is the most colorful of the local venomous snakes around here and is the only species that's not a pit viper. Coral Snakes don't tend to get very large, with most of them staying less than two feet in length, and they prefer to live in areas which are at least partially wooded with abundant ground litter. The only time I ever spotted one in the wild was in the hollow of a dead tree that had a bunch of pine needles piled up around it. The Texas Coral Snake is especially reclusive and only bites if provoked, but its venom is the most potent of all the local snake species, so getting bit by one is not something anyone wants to do. Kirby explains further.
"Coral Snakes are related to cobras and pack a powerful neurotoxin. They're almost always encountered underneath log, old boards, and similar cover near wooded areas. There are some myths about them being "rear fanged" and only able to bite fingers and toes. This is untrue, but I think it stems from their super shy and reclusive nature."
Kirby also feels that most people bit by Coral Snakes usually create the unsafe condition that precedes the event.
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"Victims are almost always goofballs who attempt to catch one after mistaking it for a similarly colored milksnake or kingsnake. Most people know some version of the old rhyme: "Red and yellow, kill a fellow, red and black, friend of Jack." In reference to the correct way to distinguish a real coral snake from a mimic. To me this always seemed beside the point, people should just leave them all alone."
And people shouldn't assume that they might only encounter a Coral Snake somewhere outside of Houston either. As Jared recalls, they can live in the heart of the city.
"There was a bite victim in Herman Park years ago. As usual, the victim was trying to capture it to keep as a pet. He went running down the street with the snake in his hand screaming for help. He finally collapsed in the road a few feet from several hospitals and was lucky to survive his encounter."
Snakes tend to have an image problem with a lot of people, but it's important to remember that all of them including the venomous varieties have important functions in the natural world, such as keeping the population of rats and other pests down. For that reason, it's best to not harm them, but understandably most people don't want to regularly find them in their yards. They can minimize those visits by keeping their grass cut low, and not allowing piles of leaves, or other snake friendly debris to accumulate. Using a broom to check denser plants for snakes, and wearing protective footwear and pants will also help, but since Houston and the surrounding area are home to lots of wildlife, it's important to remember that a snake doesn't want to encounter humans anymore than most of us want to encounter them, and they will probably move along if given the opportunity.