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The definitive guide to snakes in Forsyth County
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Copperheads are one of three venomous snakes native to Forsyth County. Photo by Brian Romm

“What kind of snake is this?”

For members of certain Forsyth County Facebook groups, the question is asked so often it’s nearly a community-wide inside joke.

While the majority of snakes in the county are safe, you can’t fault some residents with being cautious.

So once and for all, here’s what kind of snake it is.

According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 47 snake species are native to Georgia and 25 of those species – three venomous and 22 nonvenomous – can be found in Forsyth County.

“There’s no other group [of animals] that probably suffers from more misinformation and poor education than the snakes do,” said John Jensen, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia DNR specializing in reptiles and amphibians.

Clint Eller – who does educational events with his daughter Ellie as Those Reptile Guys and is part of a group to remove snakes from people’s homes – said since the majority of snakes are nonvenomous, learning to spot the few that are can replace some of the speculation.

“I tell people, ‘Google the snakes in your area,” Eller said. “…You don’t have to educate yourself on every snake in your county. Educate yourself on the two or three venomous from where you are, and then you basically are a snake expert.”

Venomous snakes

Forsyth’s three species of venomous snakes are copperheads, timber rattlesnakes and pigmy rattlesnakes.

The copperhead is by far the most common venomous snake county residents might run into but can be easily spotted by a pattern unlike any other in Georgia.

“Learn to identify a copperhead, which has really distinctive hourglass-shaped bands when viewed from above. It kind of looks like Hershey’s Kisses when viewed from the side,” Jensen said. “So, if you can learn that pattern and look for rattles on anything else and don’t see them, then that is a pretty good way to rule out venomous snakes for me.”

For the rattlesnakes, Jensen said the pigmy rattlesnake is rare and “not a species that I ever get just the general public sending me photos of.”

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Photos by Chris Murphy and Brian Romm for the Forsyth County News

When it comes to timber rattlesnakes, they are more common but have lost much of their habitat in the county to development.

“The timber rattlesnake is a species that doesn’t do well where there are a lot of roads,” Jensen said. “If you get into the less developed parts of Forsyth County, then you potentially could encounter timber rattlesnakes. But, they’re not going to be found in neighborhoods anymore. They’ve pretty much been wiped out of developed areas. There’s just not enough habitat for them.”

The experts said to leave the snakes alone and not try to approach or move them. Venomous snakes can retain their venom even if beheaded.

“People that usually get bit see the snake first then choose a course of action that puts them in greater chances of danger, whether they’re trying to catch it to relocate it or kill it and get too close,” Jensen said.

Nonvenomous

If not one of those three species, the rest of the snakes in the county are harmless, though that doesn’t stop rumors and false information from saying otherwise.

Eller said he has heard all sorts of theories when removing snakes and said his top favorite deals with black snakes.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s a black copperhead,’” he said. “The black copperhead one always cracks me up. ‘The black snakes and copperheads are crossing and reproducing,’ that one’s pretty funny. We hear that one a lot. ‘Rattlesnakes are no longer using their tails as a defense mechanism. They keep their rattle quiet so they can bite people,’ I hear that one a lot.”

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Photos by Chris Murphy and Brian Romm for the Forsyth County News

Jensen said if you see a snake in or near the water in Forsyth County, it probably isn’t a threat.

“If you see a snake that is spending time in the water, it’s almost certainly a northern or red-bellied water snake,” Jensen said. “Both species are common.”

Other common nonvenomous snakes are rat snakes, black racers, garter snakes and eastern kingsnakes, which are a little rarer than the others.

Eller said having certain nonvenomous snakes around can limit the number of dangerous ones.

“King snakes eat venomous snakes. Snakes are one of the big items on their menu. A king snake can eat a venomous snake pretty much the same size as itself,” he said.

In the case of rat snakes, they compete with copperheads for habitat and food but are more active hunters than the ambush-style copperheads.

“A lot of times, it’s a war of attrition,” Eller said. “The rat snake comes into the area and eats the food and the copperhead is sitting there with nothing to do. It forces the copperhead to move on.”

Jensen said “a few species that get less than 12 inches as adults,” such as brown snakes, worm snakes, red-bellied snakes – not to be confused with the red-bellied water snakes –  and ringneck snakes.

Jensen said it is against the law in Georgia to harm a nonvenomous snake, and while they might bite if handled “so would a bird if you picked it up.”

Snake tips

Though advice is commonly given for gauging whether a snake is venomous or not – including eye and head shape – Jensen recommends not getting close enough to snakes to study their features and said the rules are not absolute.

For example, the venomous eastern coral snake, which is found in south Georgia, has features more closely resembling nonvenomous snakes.

“[In Forsyth County], you only have pit vipers,” Jensen said. “People always talk about having a triangular head, and pit vipers do. They have a really wide head relative to their neck, but lots of nonvenomous snakes will flare out their heads when they feel threatened or intimidated.”

Jensen said no snakes in Georgia will chase people.

If a snake is in your house, Eller said to contact 911 or snake removal experts and “close the [room’s] door, pack a towel up under the door and give us the time to get there and remove them.”

Eller said about 80 percent of his calls are for rat snakes 2- or 3-feet in length.

Eller recommended leaving snakes found on property alone but had a tip for getting them to move along their way.

“Get a water hose and spray it with cold water. Not directly in the face, but spray around it. Spray its body,” he said. “They hate that, and will nine times out of 10 leave on their own.”

Otherwise, if county residents encounter a snake, the experts said to keep a safe distance and enjoy it. 

“Enjoy it, appreciate it, check out its cool pattern or if it has one or more colors. There are some really cool-looking snakes in Georgia,” Jensen said. “Otherwise, just back away from it if you don’t know what it is or walk around it from a safe distance and you stand no chance of getting bit.”