The berry picking’s been good, but it’s the dog days and the snakes are out. I’ve seen two copperheads already.” Yet another reader cautioned, “Be careful fishing the stream channels this time of year, the rattlers are down.” So what’s all this fuss and commotion about dog days and snakes?
Dog days generally refer to the sweltering July 24 to August 24 time of year. Per Wikipedia, the term originates back to the time of the Greeks and Romans who associated the hot weather with Sirius, the “red dog star.” “They considered it the Dog Star because it’s the brightest within the Large Dog constellation, Canis Major. Sirius is also the brightest star of the night sky.
The Romans popularly believed the dog days to be an an evil time, when “the Sea boiled, the wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies (sic).”
To offset the real or perceived threats of the red hot star, “the Romans sacrificed a red dog in April to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather.” So much for the dog days but what about those poisonous snakes, pit vipers AKA copperheads and timber rattlers in these parts?
Well, you might very well see either of them here. These cold-blooded reptiles that hibernate below the frost line in winter are out and about now thanks to that energy giving warmth. You could very well see one at this time of year especially around rocky slopes, slash piles and other such cover where they can ambush a meal or two in the form of a mouse or chipmunk sized warm-blooded prey.
Copperheads can be found just about anywhere in West Virginia per Bayard Green and Thomas Pauley’s book, Amphibians and Reptiles in West Virginia. Timber rattlesnakes are not as widely distributed with some noted vacancies in the northern Panhandle and Ohio River Valley. At one time however, the authors suspect that both serpents likely occupied the entire state, the modern voids attributed to human encroachments.
Kind of like bobcats, these poisonous snakes are rather secretive. Even the most outdoor oriented folk don’t generally get to see them in great numbers. Many observations are in fact of the road-killed variety. But here they are and we should respect but not fear them. If you don’t play around with them, your chances of getting bit are extremely slim.
Most, but not all of my poisonous snake encounters have in fact been road kills. As a younger fellow, a timber rattler was harvested from a forest regeneration work zone. This snake had some seven or so mice of varying stages of digestion from mouth to vent within its innards. The skin peeled off with ease, much like that of a banana. The boiled, snow-white flesh wasn’t half bad, tasting kind of like a rubberized scallop.
On another occasion in Logan County, a hunting dog of mine took a neck bite from a large copperhead. The bite region swelled into a large balloon-like goiter. The vet pretty much said the setter was all right and within a day or so, he was. It was kind of like “give him two aspirins and call me in the morning.” However, I was told a rattlesnake bite would have been another story. They are bigger on average than copperheads, not only with more venom but a more potent one to boot.
Chief Logan State Park Superintendent, Bruce Collinsworth believed that one of his dogs was in fact immune to the effects of snakebite. Having been bit so many times, the pooch was kind of vaccinated by the live venom. The snake’s normal use of the venom is of course to use the pits of their heads to heat sense, locate, strike and inject their prey with it. The venom is thus a fairly quick kill to the tiny prey, which are then ingested whole.
So be careful but not fearful out there during these dog days and try to stay cool too. Again just like those bobcats, the poisonous snakes add some excitement to the lore of the local hills. These creatures just don’t live anywhere. By virtue of their sheer presence, they make this place we all call home quite special.