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I grew up near forests in the midwest US. As a kid I spent a lot of time in wooded areas off trails, in very dense foliage. A lot of this was near or even in creeks and rivers. As an adult I've hiked in the same area through areas with no trails, sometimes in very dense foliage.

In these areas there are rattlesnakes, copperheads, and maybe cottonmouths. Also of course there are many harmless snakes. Over all those years of hiking in trail-less woods and swimming in creeks I've only seen a few snakes, and only had one threaten me.

So am I lucky, or is it just unusual to see snakes in woodlands?

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  • As a kid in suburban Philadelphia, we had no problems finding garter and water snakes. No rattlesnakes to be found though.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 26 at 0:07
  • If you hole around Near Mountain in Nay you will eventually see rattlesnakes
    – keshlam
    Feb 26 at 6:28
  • 10
    How many mice, badgers, foxes, weasels, martens, lizards, beavers etc. have you seen? Why would you think it’s different for snakes? For most animals avoiding being seen is crucial. I’m actually surprised how many snakes and lizards one can see, usually only because they are sunbathing (which is rare in woods).
    – Michael
    Feb 26 at 9:40
  • @Michael, the only time I've seen a snake in the forest (as opposed to sunning itself on a path) was when a weasel was trying to turn it into lunch.
    – Mark
    Feb 27 at 22:00
  • How could that not depend on where those woods were located? Here in the UK, adders are the only true snakes and very few people ever see one. Slow worms look a lot like snakes and in my nearly 70 years, I've met one. 'Everyone knows' there are no snakes in Ireland… and I have no experience there. Feb 28 at 21:56

5 Answers 5

22

Snakes usually only attack if they are disturbed, surprised, or trodden on. So perhaps you make a lot of noise in some way that allows them to avoid confrontation.

Their venom is for disabling their natural prey. Most creatures will avoid confrontation that may harm them, except as an emergency reaction.

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  • 2
    Given that OP is in dense foliage, it is less likely that snakes are seen than in open ground. Feb 25 at 22:58
  • 3
    In nearly 47 years of yard work, gardening, and tending a patch of woods in a woodsy area in Northern Virginia, my husband have seen 8 snakes, all harmless. That includes the one our "herpetologist cat" brought into the house, dead, and the one our yard guys proudly displayed after they killed it. (They were baffled at my asking them not to kill any more snakes.) So no, I don't think your experience is unusual.
    – ab2
    Feb 27 at 2:12
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    @ab2 interesting to hear the north american viewpoint, a bit of a comparison with down here in Australia - I saw two tiger snakes within 2-3 metres of me in the first 15 minutes of a walk last weekend then none for the next 3 hours. They moved away from me without attacking, which is normal - no one I personally know has ever been bitten by a snake. Feb 27 at 6:50
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It’s rare that small animals are particularly visible unless they exhibit bright or highly contrasting colors (in almost all cases, either aposematic coloring, or batesian mimicry of a species with aposematic coloring). But pit vipers, which account for a majority of venomous snakes native to the American Midwest, generally tend towards camouflage and startle displays instead of bright colors. And, as there aren’t any brightly colored species to mimic, the same is largely also the case for most non-venomous snakes native to the area as well. And the presence of dense foliage compounds this issue, because you’re far less likely to see anything on the ground (which is where a majority of snakes will be found in the Midwest).

I’ve likely not hiked or explored outside as much as you, but I have actively looked for snakes before. The only time I’ve ever seen anything other than garter snakes or eastern racers in the wild was an eastern hognose snake that I would not have spotted were it not for the fact that it was amelanistic (and also happened to decide to play dead in the middle of the trail). And even those garter snakes or eastern racers I have seen have mostly been in places where their camouflage does not work well. I wouldn’t say this makes them ‘rare’ so much as making them good at avoiding detection in their natural habitat.

7

I'm going to say lucky and/or unobservant. Snakes are not rare - at all.

I've lived in Louisana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas.

It was common to see blue racers and ribbon snakes in the yard (and the schoolyard) in Louisiana. We had a water moccasin slither in the back door when we lived near a bayou. One morning when I went out to wait on the school bus, I nearly stepped on a water moccasin that had wrapped itself around the mailbox post. I've seen many a water moccasin swimming the bayou. It was common to dodge rattle snakes while crossing pastures - I even found a baby rattler one day while digging worms out of a rotten log to go fishing. I saw more than one alligator there as well.

In Arkansas, I saw a water moccasin swimming the river while I was out fishing with my great uncle.

I didn't see any snakes in Texas, but that's probably because we always lived in town (Tyler and Houston) there.

I've seen rattlers and water moccasins in Missouri, and left hay bales in the pasture that had the remains of copperheads sticking out of them. We kept a .22 caliber pistol in the truck to shoot snakes while hauling hay bales. There was a popular spot on a large creek where the kids went swimming in the summer - you always looked to be sure the moccasins were gone before you went in the water. I've seen a moccasin or two swimming across that swimming hole. I nearly stepped on a rattler that was crossing a gravel road I was walking along - I was maybe 5 years old that time.

If you've been spending any amount of time outdoors, I don't know how you could avoid the snakes - or the brown recluse spiders, or the black widow spiders. Not to mention the snapping turtles, red wasps, and yellow jackets.

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  • By living in the Midwest. I've seen three my entire life. And two of those were in the Arches. Lucky, was when I accidentally set off a Frilled Lizard face to face... unforgettable. If there's a polar opposite to Australia; it's Chicago.
    – Mazura
    Feb 28 at 3:44
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I lived in a place in Bucks County, near Philadelphia, PA, that was on the border between suburban development and woodlands. There were about two acres of mowed lawn on our property and more in neighbor's places. There were several acres of abandoned fields and several acres of woodland on our property and neighboring property.

So naturally there was a lot of wildlife in the area. One day my sister went down the street to investigate screaming she heard. She reported she found a teenage girl standing on a picnic table screaming because she saw a mole. That girl would not like the critters we saw just a block from her place, mammals as large as deer and birds as large as Canada geese.

I once spent some time the woods, cutting the vines which grew on the trees, but I didn't notice any snakes in the woods. Once an old woman visited and said when she was a girl she went into the woods and was scared by seeing big snakes on rocks in the creek.

Naturally I sometimes saw small snakes on the place, garter snakes and similar types. I once saw a short, fat, ringed snake which I can't identify. And eventually big water snakes came to our pond - probably the type the old woman saw. They seemed to be northern watersnakes Nerodia sipedon sipedon. My brother in law said he killed a baby cottonmouth or copperhead on our place, and it was probably actually a watersnake.

The watersnakes were mostly in or near our pond. Sometimes they sunned themselves on the dock of our little pond. And once I saw about four mallard ducks sitting on one side of the dock and about six watersnakes on the other side.

And I never had any trouble with snakes.

As far as I remember, all the snakes I saw on our place were on the lawn or in the pond. Except one time we lifted up a stone slab and there was a little snake under it which looked right and left and finally made up its mind which way to slither off. I don't remember seeing any snakes in the woods, not even when looking at the creek where the old woman saw snakes.

So in my experience it is hard to see snakes in the woods or know how many might be in the woods.

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I would argue it's a bit of both.

Virtually all animals exist because of their ability to not be seen. Natural camouflage, lack of movement, and knowing how to conceal themselves in the environment are just some of the methods snakes and other creatures use to avoid becoming prey.

Depending on your location snakes are likely very common and for every one you have seen you have probably overlooked ten. A person who goes into the forest to find a snake, and knowing where to look will usually find one but if you are just going on a stroll without intentionally seeking them out you should not see any. Any snake you accidentally see is a poorly evolved specimen (with obvious exceptions) that will be just as easily found by a predator.

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