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Moment of Nature - May 22, 2015

The Snake Tree (Part 1)

Posted: May 21, 2015 4:32 p.m.
Updated: May 22, 2015 1:00 a.m.

Nothing instills fear in the heart and soul of humans as does a snake. Since the beginning of recorded history, snakes have been a symbol of evil, treachery, poison, etc., and because of this perception, misinformation and folklore, most people hate snakes. Personally I have no problem with snakes; roaches and tarantulas are a different story, but a snake? No worries.

I’ve had a number of encounters with snakes both poisonous and nonpoisonous as a field forester in my younger years and as an outdoor enthusiast my entire life. While I am not a snake expert, here is what I do know as fact. Most snakes are not aggressive. They would rather slither away than strike. If hassled and agitated they will fight back, just like any other animal. Commonly seen snakes in suburban settings are non-poisonous black rat snakes and corn snakes, both of which can be mistaken for the poisonous copperhead and rattlesnake, respectively. Snakes also help maintain rodent populations and will only be present where the habitat and food source is suitable.

One of the goals of community forest management is to balance the existence of natural resources (trees, plants, animals, birds and, yes, snakes) within the confines of the built environment and the people who live, work and play in the environment. Here in Camden, we are very fortunate to have many parks, greenspaces, streams, ponds and even a lake which help support a variety of plant and animal life. I think it’s one of the things which makes living here a good thing. A good thing until the natural world comes face-to-face with the human world.

As the city arborist, I’ve been asked to extricate not only ants and squirrels from trees (both of which are not feasible) but also snakes (not so feasible either). However, on a sunny afternoon a couple of years ago, I received a call from a resident very upset about a snake in a tree. She wanted the tree cut down because one of the neighbors had already gotten one snake out of the tree and another one was up in the branches. The police department had been called out to the scene the night before, but there was nothing they could do. I explained snakes don’t live in trees and it was likely up there trying to catch a baby bird or squirrel (not a pleasant thought, but every animal has to eat). I also mentioned it was probably a black rat snake which is not poisonous and would go away on its own. She was very concerned about the situation and afraid something would happen to her small dog, which spent time in her fenced in yard. Upon arrival, I noticed her house was next to an overgrown field, on which sat an abandoned car and tractor, and woodlands were behind her house. This was perfect habitat for toads, lizards, voles, rabbits, etc., and, potentially, snakes.

I also discovered the tree was within the street right-of-way, making it a public tree and therefore the city’s responsibility. What now? Back at the office, an internet search yielded several wildlife trapping companies in the Midlands and a variety of snake-away products available for sale. A few calls later revealed wildlife companies don’t do snakes. They advised to leave it be. OK, Plan B: call our resident naturalist, Austin Jenkins; he’ll be able to help and know what to do! Austin agreed snakes don’t live in trees, they’re just temporarily feeding and best to let them be. Ugh.

(Find out what happens in next month's column.)

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