A Royal Visitor

Eastern Kingsnake

Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula)

Just yesterday, I was talking to a woman who had been bitten by a copperhead the previous day. She was incredibly lucky. She was weeding a densely packed flowerbed — bare-handed — when she felt a sudden hard sting on two knuckles. She said it felt as if someone had rapped her knuckles sharply with a ruler. Each stinging knuckle had a bloody bite mark. That’s when she saw the two-foot-long copperhead disguised among the weeds she had been pulling.

Of course, her friends rushed her to the hospital, which was close by, and she was immediately whisked into an examination room, where the doctor on duty told her she’d be there at least five hours, because her hand and fingers could swell enormously at any time during that period. If swelling occurred, they warned her, that would mean the venom was beginning to digest her hand from the inside out, and they would need to administer a shot of very expensive anti-venom to stop the reaction.

A close view of the body of the Eastern Kingsnake

A close view of the body of the Eastern Kingsnake

But this woman was phenomenally lucky. Probably because the snake struck her knuckle bones, the fangs did not penetrate deeply. She received only a tiny bit of venom. Her hand grew stiff and cold for a few hours while the doctors watched her, but then warmed back up on its own; she was able to move her fingers, and eventually go home.

As we talked about copperheads, I mentioned that I was always happy when I encountered Eastern Kingsnakes on my property, because they eat copperheads. Eastern Kingsnakes are resistant to the venom of pit vipers like copperheads, rattlesnakes, and cottonmouths, and happily eat them whenever they can. If you’ve got Eastern Kingsnakes, odds are good that you will have fewer copperheads.

Knock on wood, we haven’t encountered a copperhead on our property in several years. But I hadn’t seen an Eastern Kingsnake on our property in over ten years. Until today. It seems as if by talking about the species to this lucky-unlucky woman yesterday, a specimen felt obliged to appear today to assure me that its kind are still on the job.

I was working near the young woman (Thanks, Ray!) who helps me in my garden. We were cleaning up my front garden, which includes a dry drainage area that Wonder Spouse lined with river cobbles. The rocks attract all manner of creatures. Today among the rocks we found a tree frog, an American toad, a small garter snake, several large slugs, and a large, crabby mother garden spider guarding her pearlescent egg sac — probably all potential prey to a hungry Eastern Kingsnake.

Suddenly Ray exclaimed, “There’s a big snake!” It had emerged from beneath the front deck, crossed the river rocks, and was stretched out beneath the weeping cherry on the fresh mulch Ray had recently added. I immediately realized it was an Eastern Kingsnake. I think I may have surprised Ray when I sprinted for the garage, where I had stashed my camera after taking garden photos earlier in the morning. As I ran for the camera, I implored the snake to stay put. It obliged my request. The following shots are smaller than usual, because they are longer than usual to accommodate the length of the reptile (about three feet). But if you click on any photo, you can see a larger version.

The snake started moving toward the river rocks that were still full of weeds at that point, so my shots all suffer from a bit of motion blur. Still, I think the series that follows will give you a sense of this gorgeous reptile.

Finally, it insinuated itself among the rocks and weeds and gave me a final look before it moved beneath a large blooming yellow yarrow. We went about our business and did not see the snake again.

You can just see its head peeking out of the (evil) Microstegium) in the bottom left of this photo.

You can just see its head peeking out of the (evil) Microstegium in the bottom left of this photo.

Please check out the links above to learn more about this species. The sites include some amazing photos, including shots of these snakes killing and devouring copperheads. From these sites, I also learned these snakes are quite secretive, which is probably why I haven’t spotted one on my property in a decade. I’m guessing they’ve always been around. They just like to keep a low profile as they go about their business of eating rodents, lizards, and all manner of snakes. That’s just fine with me.

But I will confess that I was extra alert this morning as I wandered about the yard taking photographs, with the copperhead-bitten woman’s tale echoing in my head. It was a great comfort — a blessing, even — for that big, beautiful Eastern Kingsnake to show itself to me today. I’ll still be careful, of course, as I wander our five acres of green chaos. But knowing the Eastern Kingsnakes are on patrol has most assuredly eased my mind.

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