Please Stop Killing Snakes!

Sigh. I was in the process of writing a very pleasant post about some lovely dragonflies, but something more important has come up, prompting this brief subject detour.

Three times recently I’ve seen posts by friends on Facebook proudly proclaiming “victory” because they’d killed a snake in or near their home. The posts look something like this: “Me 1: Snake 0,” as if it’s some sort of competition…or even a war. They usually go on to describe the weapon they used to murder the poor animal, and then lament the mess of blood they have to clean up afterward. And these posts are usually responded to with cheers from their friends congratulating them for their bravery. Never once does anyone ask if it was a venomous snake or was threatening them in any way. That doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is “off with its head!”

Hog-nosed Snake - head crop
Young  Eastern hog-nosed snake, about 8 inches long. He eats toads, not people. (Toledo, Ohio)

I get that lots of people are afraid of snakes, I really do. I’ve been startled by them many times on my walks, as they suddenly slide across a path and slither into a meadow. I don’t like that feeling of being startled. But this attitude of killing every snake just because, well, it’s a snake…well, that bothers me deeply. I think if people took the time to learn more about snakes they wouldn’t be so quick to act with aggression. So that’s why I’m writing this today, to urge everyone to just slow down and think about these fascinating animals.

I know many people will have stopped reading this already because they feel a sermon coming on. And I guess there’s nothing I can do to reach those people who aren’t willing to reconsider their views. But for those who are open-minded enough, I decided to write a little bit in support of snakes, and to suggest ways to overcome that all-too-human instinct to decapitate them and then want a medal for it.

Garter snake head closeup (800x662)
Eastern Gartersnake, very common and completely harmless (Toledo, Ohio)

And by the way, I’m not trying to say that you should welcome snakes into your home, not at all. They need to be removed to the outdoors, gently and safely, by someone who knows how to do that. This is about the indiscriminate killing of snakes outside, in yards and gardens.

Okay, let’s do this. First of all, I find the best way to overcome any fear is to educate myself about whatever it is I’m afraid of.  The Ohio Division of Wildlife has a fantastic series of guides to help us learn about the various types of animals in our state. Your state may have something similar. A quick perusal of the snake section in their Reptiles of Ohio Field Guide tells me that there are 28 species of snakes in Ohio and only three of them are venomous. Here’s their page on the Eastern Massasauga, for example:

Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake Ohio

They also give you tips for determining if a snake is venomous or not:

Venomous vs non-venomous snakes Ohio DNR

This little booklet has helped transform my fear into curiosity and wonder at these beautiful creatures. And even if I’m still “afraid” of venomous snakes, I know that they prefer to get away from me and will usually only strike if provoked. I guess I’m more respectful than afraid, really.

So, now we’re armed with knowledge about which snakes are venomous, and therefore we know that none of the others should be feared. At all.

But there’s more…not only are they not to be feared, they are desirable animals. One of my friends who killed a snake recently has also been concerned with rodents in her garden. The irony of this was not lost on me because I know that a snake will take care of that rodent problem for you, lickety-split. (Now there’s a phrase from the early 19th century for your enjoyment.)

Not only do snakes control rodents around homes, but they do it for free! And they don’t destroy the garden by digging holes either (although they do use holes dug by other animals). They don’t spread diseases. They don’t harm your plants. And they don’t want to see you any more than you want to see them. They just want to be left alone to live their quiet, unobtrusive lives.

Garter snake sketch (1) (800x600)
Gartersnake sketched from my photo.

A few years ago I tried to sketch a garter snake I saw on the beach in Michigan. I’m not much of an artist, clearly. But the process of trying to draw this one forced me to look at it much more closely than I’d ever done before. And when you look closely at them, they’re incredibly beautiful. Worthy of admiration rather than scorn, in my humble opinion. Could you catch a mouse or frog if you had no arms or legs? Didn’t think so.

I just wish we could all be more appreciative and accepting of wildlife instead of killing every insect or reptile that dares to come near us. Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.

Thanks for reading. Back to dragonflies soon. 🙂

Jane Goodall Knows

Like many people who care about social and environmental issues, I sometimes get discouraged. Can I really make a difference? What impact can I have by writing a letter to my representative, or signing a petition? Petitions are a dime a dozen nowadays anyway, right? Don’t you ever wonder if they really have any impact? I do. Or, I should say, I did.

Two weeks ago I got involved in an effort to stop the airport in Grand Rapids from shooting Snowy Owls. Very personally involved. And I think the experience has changed me forever.

Snowy Owl petition screenshot for blog
This is a screenshot of the petition on Change.org. The photo was provided by Charles Owens.

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you know how much I care about protecting birds and their habitats. So when someone in a birding group found out that the airport was killing the owls instead of the more humane method of trapping and relocating them, birders were up in arms. And something clicked in me right then — I decided to start a petition on Change.org. I’d seen how fast a similar petition had gotten results when JFK airport was caught shooting the owls in December (story here), so I decided to try and harness the passion of all my birding friends to see if we could do the same here in Michigan.

And boy, did we. My petition quickly got 2,000 signatures (and would have 3,500 in a couple more days). Lots of people started sending emails to the airport and the local media in Grand Rapids. Links to the petition were spread throughout social media so fast I couldn’t keep up with them all. Within 24 hours we’d been joined by some “big guns” — Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the American Bird Conservancy. Michigan Audubon also helped spread the word. While those more-experienced leaders continued their attempts to speak with airport officials, I focused on putting news updates on the petition site and encouraged people to keep sharing the link.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late?), the media picked up the story and aired it on the evening news right after the MLK holiday weekend. I was thrilled to see that my petition was mentioned in every story done in the next few days. (Although, thankfully for an introvert like me, the media didn’t contact me or mention my name — whew!) I’m generally more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes type of person, but I’m really glad I stepped up this time and put myself out there, even if it was just as a petition author. Because when we were successful in getting the airport to increase their efforts to trap-and-relocate, I felt a personal victory and a newfound sense of power. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that I was responsible for the success of this campaign. No, there were lots of people involved in making this happen. What I mean is that I saw, very clearly and up close, that a petition and social media can make a difference.

I was blown away at how easy it was to spread the word about this petition. I’ve purposely kept a short “friend list” on social media, so I knew I personally couldn’t reach that many people. But it didn’t matter because my short friend list includes people who have very big networks, so all I had to do was ask them to mention the campaign and it took off like wildfire. I was gobsmacked by the whole thing (just wanted to use that word today).

One of the best things about the whole episode was seeing this photo of the first Snowy Owl the airport trapped after this story broke:

Photo by Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Used with permission.
Photo by Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Used with permission.

In the photo is Aaron Bowden, a licensed bander with the USDA, who manages the whole trapping and relocating process. I think it’s safe to say that our campaign saved the life of this beautiful owl. And I hope the airport continues its stepped-up efforts to trap the birds for the next two months until they head back north to their relatively peaceful home — the one that doesn’t have airplanes and cars and people everywhere.

I was reading “The Ten Trusts” the other day (a fabulous book, by the way) and in it Jane Goodall said:

The Tenth, and final, Trust is, perhaps, the most important of all. It reminds us that every action we take to make the world a better place is important and worthwhile, no matter how small. Because there are millions of others like us, and as long as each of us does our bit, the cumulative result will be massive change for the good.

That was reassuring to me, because if anyone understands the power of individual action, it’s Jane Goodall. And the way I see it, what’s the point of being on this planet if I can’t be bothered to do my part to protect what’s left of the natural world?

Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best. ~Henry van Dyke

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Yesterday morning we woke up to find the yard covered with a light dusting of snow, our first real snow of this season. And it was very cold too, giving us our first taste of the bitterness that often comes with a Michigan winter. We were taking it easy, curled up in blankets, drinking tea and watching a documentary about JFK. As usual, I glanced out the window occasionally to watch the birds in the yard. My favorite birds, the Cedar Waxwings, had just arrived to partake of some red berries on a shrub just outside the window. They come in small flocks a couple times every fall until they finish off all the fruit. Here are a couple pictures I’d taken of them a few days earlier (through the window, so not the greatest quality photos):

Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard
Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard

Cedar Waxwing with red berry in open mouth - a bit blurry (800x574) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - good one (800x641) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - head on view (640x511)

Owl and titmouse (640x582)
See the Tufted Titmouse behind him?

I had a wonderful time watching them feast that day. But things were different yesterday. After noting their arrival, I’d turned my attention back to the documentary on tv. A few minutes later I realized that I was distracted by a lot of chattering in the trees. I saw some chickadees and titmice flitting around and shouting alarm calls. We muted the tv to listen to them, and immediately saw an Eastern Screech-owl sitting on a branch about 8 feet outside our window, looking right at us!

It’s not often we get to see owls in daytime, so we were both very excited. But as I crept closer to the window I noticed something hanging below the owl. I knew it had to be a bird, and I assumed it was one of the chickadees or titmice. But no, it was a Cedar Waxwing, still fluttering its wings as it died in the clutches of the owl’s talons.

screech-owl with cedar waxwing prey (571x800) w sig

I’m squeamish about seeing animals die–even when I know it’s the way of nature–so I looked away for a half minute until the waxwing stopped moving. Then I was able to be awed at the beauty of the owl, and amazed that he’d caught a bird as large as this one. He sat there for about ten minutes and then flew off into the woods with his catch. I imagine that will keep him satisfied for a good long while.

I’ve been told that the chickadee early warning system is a good way to find an owl, and now I’ve seen it for myself. Often if the little birds spot an owl roosting in a tree they’ll raise a ruckus, either in an attempt to chase it away or just to warn everyone. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You’d think a little bird would just want to take off and get far away from a predator like that, but these little guys were getting in his face and really giving him a hard time.

It’s always preferable to see owls in the wild if possible, but at two recent Audubon events I’ve had a chance to see some captive owls up close, and they are amazing and beautiful birds. All of these owls have some sort of injury or other problem that makes it impossible for them to survive in the wild, so they are permanent residents at nature centers where they’re used for educational programs (like coming to Audubon meetings). Here’s Circe, a Great Horned Owl that lives at the Howell Nature Center:

Circie the Great Horned Owl from Howell Nature Center (4) (800x762) w sig
Circe is more than twenty years old, can you believe that? And here’s a Short-eared Owl whose name I’ve forgotten, also from the Howell Nature Center:

Short-eared Owl (9) (800x642) w sig

A Barred Owl from the Leslie Nature Center:

Barred Owl from Leslie Nature Center - Copy (640x480)

Talons on a Barred Owl
The business end of a Barred Owl — talons to be respected

You may have seen Barred Owls in the news lately in connection with the plight of the threatened Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. Environmentalists have waged a controversial fight to save the Spotted Owl’s territory from loggers for many years, only to have it now face a threat from the larger and more aggressive Barred Owls, which have expanded into the same territories. The government now plans to kill thousands of Barred Owls to save the Spotted Owls. Hmm, when do we decide it’s “worth it” to kill one species to save another? Some people believe we should make every effort to prevent every single species from going extinct, while others think we should let nature take its course. I find myself always coming down on the side of saving a species, especially if human activities are the cause of its troubles. But in a case like this when it’s not entirely clear yet how and why the two owl species are interacting, I have more trouble siding with those who want to start shooting Barred Owls. But clearly these are ethical muddy waters.

All I know is that the idea of any species being eradicated from the Earth because of human activity makes me deeply sad in a way that’s hard to express. Sure, most of us will never see a Northern Spotted Owl or a Barred Owl anyway, but does that mean it’s ok for either of them to disappear forever? I hope not.