Not every kid in Florida is taught Mother Goose rhymes, but it’s guaranteed they know a couplet that could save their necks in a snake encounter.
“Red touch yellow, kill the fellow. Red touch black, he’s OK, Jack.”
There are several variations: “Red touch yellow, death says hello; red touch black, he’s a friend of Jack.” “Red touch yellow, he’s a dangerous fellow; red touch black, venom he lacks.”
The rhyme is the simple way to help distinguish the poisonous coral snake, with bands of red, yellow, black, yellow, red – in that order – from the benign scarlet king snake that turns up in the same general areas.
If you get close enough to one or the other to see the snake clearly, the head of a king snake is red – and a creamier white-yellow on the king snake is readily apparent – the coral snake’s yellow bands are much more golden yellow and its nose is black.
Another version of the rhyme that tells this:
“If the head is red, you’re not dead.”
It’s tough not to get excited and go for the ax when you see a coral snake, but reptile experts say the coral snake isn’t aggressive and prefers to be under a rock or leaves, or even underground – and be left alone.
They will bite if stepped on, but instead of a mere strike, such as from the more aggressive rattlesnake, they must chomp down on their victim and grip a long while to inflict the poison. Ergo: You’d know if you’ve been bitten. Antivenins are readily available; no deaths from a coral snake bite have been reported in the U.S. in more than 40 years. Snake bite deaths overall are minimal in the U.S., no more than 20 a year throughout the country.
Pets, however, are more susceptible to being bit. A dog’s curiosity for digging and chasing may result in a tangle between them, and the snake will win if it can get the grip. Get the dog to the vet immediately, and take the dead snake along for a positive ID.
The king snake is a gardener’s buddy – he’ll eat venemous snakes and rats. Its constrictor method of killing isn’t dangerous for a human – and like most other snakes, they fear humans unless they’re cornered.
Play it safe — be smart
Snakes aren’t totally unpredicatable. They stick to certain comfortable areas. They like to go unnoticed. Give a snake plenty of room to get out of your way, and generally, that’s what they’ll do.
The exceptions: The rattlesnake, common in Florida, down to the Keys – will often stay put and defend itself if it’s threatened. First you’ll hear its loud rattle warning, then see it, likely curled up and ready to strike. It can strike from a significant distance – so back away quickly if you encounter one, and get help immediately if you are bitten. The water moccasin, another bad boy common around lakes, springs and in the Glades, hiss a lot and emit a smell that’s akin to goat musk – if you smell goat-stink, then back off. They aren’t as quick to bite – you generally have time to get beat feet.
If you have been bitten by a snake, get help (preferably at a hospital) as soon as possible. Taking the snake in for identification is helpful, but don’t waste too much time looking – getting antivenin is a priority. If you’re going to be hiking or camping in areas known to have snakes, read up on them and how to avoid being bitten – your smartest defense.
Common sense tips: Wear heavy boots when you’re walking in snake-friendly areas. Shake out camping bedding and shoes. Take care gardening in brush-filled areas or those covered in rocks and leaves, and watch out around woodpiles. Snakes like to nest under rocks, but do come out after big rains, or during breeding season. Don’t harass snakes – or any other wildlife – they were here first. Observe from a distance – and don’t try to make pets of them.