A Sunday serpent…
By By Joe McGee/Special to The Star
June 1, 2001
It all began early one recent Sunday morning as I was attempting to eat breakfast. The homeless dog – now apparently our dog – was barking hysterically. I got up from the table and peeked out the hall door, halfway expecting to see a prowler, perhaps some telemarketer I'd recently offended or, at the very least, the tomcat that has been showing up on the carport at suppertime nightly since last fall. Had the cat now decided to come for breakfast as well?
I could see nothing out of the ordinary; no prowler; no cat; nothing. But after three episodes of urgent, shrill yelping by the dog, I knew something was up. Stepping around the car to the edge of the carport, I saw it; a little snake there in the middle of the driveway.
Such a big barking to-do over so small a serpent!
At first I assumed it was a young speckled kingsnake. That's the kind I usually find in our yard. As I drew closer however, I could see it was no kingsnake. Perhaps it was a gray rat snake (a.k.a. "chicken snake") which also appears around the house now and then. But even that tentative identification did not seem quite right and when I reached the snake, I could see a vivid rosy-red pattern extending from it's belly to about a third of the way up its sides. Because it also had a glossy black back, I was almost certain that a harmless mud snake had made its way into our yard and excited the dog.
Like most folks, I too become excited by every snake I see. A mud snake on the driveway is an especially noteworthy event because this somewhat secretive species is seldom encountered except as road kill where highways cross streams or pass near swampy areas.
` How did one make its way into our yard? I suspect the previous Sunday's heavy rains played a role. On Easter Sunday creeks overflowed their banks, and ditches and borrow pits were themselves virtual rivers for a time. The snake, along with lots of other critters, probably stayed with the high water and then was left high and dry when it receded.
I gently picked up the little snake (I estimated it was about a foot long) and took it inside for comparison with the illustrations in the "Golden Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians" which I've used since I was 10 or 11 years old. The guide and other field guides convinced me that , with its brilliant red belly bars, indeed the creature was a mud snake.
Mud snakes are perhaps better known in our area as "stinging snakes." The tail terminates in a pointed tip but no stinger is present. As I held the little fellow, it probed between my fingers with its sharp, pointed tail, but the probes were absolutely painless. All the while the shy snake concealed its head under its body as it rested in my hand.
At no time did it attempt to bite.
This episode brought to mind the huge "stinging snake" my siblings and I found coiled in a livestock watering trough years ago. Our father immediately dispatched the reptile as was customary in those days. He then spent nearly half an hour trying to extract its stinger before finally conceding defeat.
We live in more enlightened times now, and as my breakfast cereal grew ever more soggy, I began to consider releasing the snake. After all, we now know that all creatures have a role to play in the natural world.
Before letting it go I wanted to show the mud snake to family and neighbors. I even considered keeping it long enough to take it to the next Audubon Society meeting. But the next meeting was 3 weeks away and I had no intention of being a wet nurse to a mud snake (no matter how attractive) for the next 3 weeks. The release would be at once.
Where to release it? "The Amphibians and Reptiles of Louisiana", an excellent reference by Dundee and Rossman, revealed that mud snakes are aquatic, occurring in willow swampland in and along small streams and similar wet habitats where they feed on frogs and aquatic salamanders. They apparently use their sharp tail tip to help manipulate their slippery prey. This information brought to mind the perfect release site – a little woodlot stream not far from our house but remote from high traffic roads.
As I set out, the dog followed at my heels. I decided to reward the dog for alerting me to the snake by giving her a name. Something like Farancia, the first half of the mud snake's scientific name. That name may seem pretentious for any dog, especially a mutt. But I'm sure this dog's pedigree would be impressive if it were known.
At the stream I placed the snake on a little patch of mud at the water's edge. It's tongue began to dart in and out, picking up odor-bearing molecules from the air. It nuzzled a wet stick, touched the water with its chin and slid into the water, disappearing beneath the surface in a swirl of bubbles.
If snakes know happiness, that must have been a happy mud snake.A Sunday serpent…