How to Properly Identify Snakes


February 21, 2014

coral snake

In the U.S., there are only four species of coral snakes.

Properly identifying snakes is essential to reducing customer fear and needlessly killing snakes. Unfortunately, snake identification isn’t easy.

Try these four tips:

1. Stay out of bite range — typically no closer than twice the snake’s length.
2. Is it venomous?
-Elliptical pupils is an indication a snake is venomous. Nonvenomous snakes usually have round eyes.
-All pit vipers, a category of venomous snakes, have a deep pit on each side of their head midway between the eye and the nostril. Nonvenomous snakes don’t have pits.
-For most suburbanites, encounters with venomous snakes are rare.
3. Pay attention to pattern more than color. Does the snake have stripes, blotches or a single color? While patterns can be helpful in some species, juveniles have patterns different than adults.
4. Obtain and read guides about identification. Many states’ wildlife agencies publish snake identification guides. Also, purchase the appropriate Peterson Field Guide for your area.

Control Methods
Transient snake complaints refer to incidents where one snake has been found in a garage, basement or other unwanted area. If a client finds a snake skin, it’s 20 percent longer than the snake that shed it. Transient problems might stem from long-term problems, but the client’s concern is one snake. If you find the snake, determine whether it’s venomous or not. If it’s not, gently grasp the snake with tongs to avoid breaking its spine. Place the snake inside a cloth bag and tie it closed. Keep the snake in a quiet area where the ambient temperature is between 40 and 70 F. If the snake has moved by the time you arrive, concentrate on areas that are cool and moist during periods of hot and dry weather and warm and moist during colder weather. These locations include hot water heaters, furnaces, and areas with ground cover.

Domiciled complaints refer to situations when the client’s problems with snakes is, or is likely to be, ongoing. These situations are more difficult and an integrated approach provides best results.

  • Modify the habitat. Snakes need cover to avoid predators and hunt. Remove wood piles, trim grass and shrubs and reduce mulch depth to 2 to 3 inches. Control rodents and insects snakes feed upon.
  • Harden structures. Secure cracks and crevices that are 1/8 of an inch or smaller.
  • Trap. Glueboard-style traps often are practical. Place them against vertical surfaces snakes are likely travel. Check them regularly. Use vegetable oil to release nontarget animals.
  • Install snake fences. Snakeproof fences help keep snakes out of small areas.
  • Pit traps with drift fences. Pit traps placed with drift fences are extremely effective traps. Use 24-inch-tall flashing to direct snakes into the kitty litter bucket buried in the ground. (Make sure pit traps aren’t illegal in your state.)

Whenever possible, relocate snakes for their best chance to survive. Translocation refers to the transportation of snakes beyond their home range. Check state regulations because not all states permit translocating wildlife. If legal, release snakes in locations that match their habitat needs. Sometimes snakes need to be killed, but before doing so, be sure the snake isn’t on the threatened or endangered species list in your state. Euthanize them by enclosing them inside a carbon-dioxide chamber.

Cautionary note: With the explosive rise of exotic and venomous snakes in the pet trade, technicians should remain vigilant during inspections. While few of these snakes escape, they do occasionally, and I suspect these incidents are likely to increase.

Stephen M. Vantassel, the program coordinator of wildlife damage management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, owns Wildlife Control Consultant, LLC. He can be reached at


About the Author

Contact Vantassel, founder of Wildlife Control Consultant, LLC, at or 402-489-1042.

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