Spring has sprung, and that means snakes are on the move in Alabama. After months of laying low, snakes are enjoying the warmer temperatures and getting out and about just like many humans here in the state.

While many snakes in Alabama are harmless, there are venomous snakes, and it’s important to know that while you may think you can identify venomous snakes by their color, eye shape and head shape, there are always anomalies that could trick even seasoned snake handlers.

Mark Hay, co-founder of Alabama Snake Removers, said there are only six species of venomous snakes in the state. Those are the copperhead, cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and coral snake.

Geography plays a big part in which snakes you are more likely to see. In the northern parts of the state, you are more likely to see a copperhead, and in the southern part of the state, cottonmouths and pygmy rattlesnakes are more prevalent.

Hay spends much of his time educating the public about how to identify particular snakes. A rattlesnake has a rattler, so that’s an easy one. While many people believe all venomous snakes have cat-eye pupils and flat heads, Hays said you can’t depend on those theories.

“As an educator, all of us are really committed to giving multiple ways of differentiating one from the other,” Hays told 1819 News. “And there is actually no one specific trait that would leave you 100% right, 100% of the time, just because you're going to have abnormalities.”

Pupil Shape

In one case in particular, Hays caught a copperhead with pupils that appeared to be round instead of cat-eye shaped.

“In Alabama, it's rare that you're going to find a non-venomous snake that has a vertical slit-style pupil,” he explained. “On the other hand, it is not unheard of to see a venomous snake with a round pupil. So, venomous snakes, yes, they do have cat-shaped pupils, but in low light and, definitely no light areas, you're going to see those snakes' eyes dilate just like any other animals' eyes dilate.”

If you are unsure of what kind of snake you come into contact with, Hays said getting close enough to see the eyes is not a good idea.

“If you can see the eyes, you're already too close for it to matter whether it's venomous or not,” he said. “You're really too close already.”


Snakeskin color and patterns are not always definite ways to identify snakes either. Abnormalities such as albinism and melanism can contribute to the color of a snake being different. In his personal experience, Hays said he has owned a black timber rattlesnake. He said location can also play a role in the color of the snake.

“A timber rattlesnake in Alabama is going to be a tan, yellow, pinkish color, and then the further up north you go, they get darker,” Hays said. “You get into Kentucky up in those Appalachian Mountains, the snakes are almost black, solid black. But that doesn't have to always be isolated with just rattlesnakes. It could be with anything.”

While the pattern of a snake’s skin is one way to identify venomous snakes, the method is still not foolproof. For example, copperheads often get confused with water snakes. Their colors are similar but their patterns are opposite, Hays explained.

“The pattern of a non-venomous snake is going to be widest at the spine and narrowest at the belly where it touches the ground,” he explained. “That is the complete opposite of a venomous snake. Their pattern starts off at its widest point at the belly, where it touches the ground, and as it goes up their back, where their spine is, their pattern 99% of the time more narrow right there.”

Still, there is a 1% chance of an anomaly, Hays warned.

“There are freaks of nature,” he added.

Head Shape

Many people think the shape of the head is a good indicator. Typically, a diamond-shaped head is a telltale sign of a venomous snake. However, even that theory can be debunked.

In fact, one of Alabama’s most elusive venomous snakes does not have a diamond-shaped or arrow-shaped head. The coral snake is found in extreme south parts of the state and their heads are rounded, similar to a rat snake or corn snake.

Hays also said some non-venomous water snakes flatten their heads as a scare tactic.

“They can make their head appear to be a venomous cottonmouth,” he explained. “It looks real mean. And so, what they do is they just push their head down onto the ground and flatten their heads out. A lot of people look at their heads and say, ‘Oh, my goodness. It's a diamond-shaped head.”

What to do

Hays said the best thing to do if you are unsure of what kind of snake you see, is to walk away. If you need a snake removed, you can call professional removal companies, like Alabama Snake Removers to do the job for you.

“Nobody has ever been bitten by walking away,” Hays said. “So, if you turn around and give that snake its personal space for a few minutes, don't overcrowd the snake; almost always, that snake will leave pretty quickly.”

When it comes to preventing unfortunate encounters at your home, Hays said snakes are attracted to areas where there are mice and rats. So, use caution around outdoor trash receptacles and sources of food, such as bird feeders.

“And then again, our rattlesnakes eat birds, rats, rabbits, squirrels, mice,” he continued. “So, depending on what source of food that you're attracting is also going to have an effect on that.”

If you are walking a trail and encounter a snake, Hays suggests staying five to 10 feet away.

Hays said if you are bitten, the most important thing is to stay calm, cool and collected.

“The higher you elevate your heart rate, the worse off it'll be,” he said. “So don't run, don't scream, don't get all worked up over it. It's already done. Let's just make it as smooth as can be.”

It is important to remove clothing and jewelry around the bite due to the potential swelling. However, it is also important to note that Benadryl will not decrease swelling on a snake bite and should not be used. Hays said while many may think applying a tourniquet is a good idea, it is most often not helpful. The only time a tourniquet should be applied is if you are bitten by a coral snake, Hays added.

If you are bitten by any snake, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Alabama sees an average of 208 venomous snake bites per year. The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) says it is helpful if a person can identify the type of snake that bit them so that proper care can be rendered.

If you must kill a snake, the ADPH recommends using a long-handed hoe to strike it in the back of the head.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email erica.thomas@1819news.com.

Don’t miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.