Birds captured my imagination almost 40 years ago because of their vibrant colors, great diversity, and ease of seeing them any time of year. After observing most of the species that could be seen in the U.S., I expanded my horizons to focus on butterflies for a few years, then dragonflies, beetles and amphibians.
I’m calling 2019 my year of the snake, and early summer is the ideal time to find them.
Snakes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course. In fact, most people are somewhat afraid of them, and a few are downright terrified. But that feeling is one many people developed based largely on misinformation and pop culture hysteria. There is no rational reason to fear snakes here in Rhode Island, where every species is harmless. No venomous snakes have been found in Rhode Island for half a century, when the last population of eastern timber rattlesnakes was eradicated.
I admit that I was a bit squeamish around snakes for a while myself, but the more time I spent with them, the more I grew to appreciate them. Whenever I came across one in the past, I was often startled due to the unexpected nature of the encounter, and by the time I recovered, my opportunity to observe the animal closely had usually passed.
Yet I’ve always known that snakes are tremendously beneficial creatures. Some species are effective at keeping rodents in check, while others are valuable consumers of other pests.
In my year of the snake, I’ve already come across four species of native snakes, including several garter snakes, the most likely species to be seen in gardens and backyards, and the beautifully patterned milk snake, whose shiny scales and color bands remind me of glazed terracotta.
I also saw the Ocean State’s largest snake, thanks to snake whisperer Lou Perrotti, the conservation director at Roger Williams Park Zoo. Lou can find snakes where mere mortals see only leaves and branches and wood piles and stone walls.
He also knows where to look. Lou took me to a historic cemetery where he knows several varieties of snakes are often found. And just outside the cemetery boundary was an absolutely stunning beast – a five-foot long black rat snake.
A glossy black with a white throat and silvery belly, it didn’t move while I stared wide-eyed at its magnificence. And it didn’t even move when Lou approached it and casually picked it up as if he were picking up a baseball bat. Black rat snakes have a reputation for being docile, and that one behaved as expected.
Until, that is, I made a motion to grab it from Lou, a motion the snake apparently didn’t expect. And it bit me.
I’m quite proud of my first snake bite. (Lou claims to have been bitten thousands of times with no ill effects.) It felt like a playful kitten got a little too playful. And then it went back to being docile.
If Rhode Island’s largest snake bites like a playful kitten, then I can attest that we have nothing whatsoever to fear from snakes in Rhode Island. But don’t just take my word for it. The next time you come across a snake, take a moment to gather your wits, take a deep breath, and focus your attention on its behavior, structure, movement and that extra-sensory tongue. I won’t claim that they’re as cute as a kitten, but they’re just as harmless.