On a warm morning this April, a panicked mother called my snake hotline: “There is a huge rattlesnake in our barn! My son almost stepped on it. Help!” I raced to the property and found a large rattlesnake coiled up at the mouth of a squirrel burrow that led underneath the barn. I captured the snake and relocated it nearby, standard protocol in these situations because it leads to a better outcome for both the homeowners and the snake.
But why was a rattlesnake in this person’s barn to begin with?
This article explains why snakes might be attracted to your yard, and what you can do to change that. Notably, I focus primarily on strategies that apply to the most common venomous snakes in the United States, which includes the rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cotttonmouth snakes. Depending on where you live, there may also be many harmless snakes, and my advice will likely reduce the chances of them being in your yard, too.
(To those of you who want snakes in your yard to help control gophers and other rodents, or just to watch fascinating wildlife, you should do the exact opposite of what I advise below!)
Alright, let’s dig in.
If you live in the middle of a city, or even the suburbs, you might never see a snake in your yard. If you live in a rural area, however, your chances are pretty high. As housing developments continue to push outward into virgin desert, forest, and prairie, new residents invariably are surprised to see a snake in their yard, even though their neighborhood was the snake’s home the year before. Basically, if you live near a natural area, snakes will probably wander through your yard. There’s not much you can do about that. The purpose of this article is to help you make it less likely that the snakes will stick around.
Right at the outset, I’m going to tell you that easy fixes don’t work. Supposed “snake repellents” found at home and garden stores are literally snake oil — they do nothing. Neither do essential oil sprays, rags soaked in ammonia, or any other remedy that sounds too good to be true. If you want to keep snakes away, you need to remove what the snakes are looking for.
Just like you, snakes need three main things to survive: shelter, water, and food. The key to keeping them away from your property is to deprive them of all three so they go looking for them somewhere else.
Most snakes — especially the venomous ones — overheat easily in the sun, and so they don’t spend much time out in the open. They seek shade under bushes, in rodent burrows…or under your porch or toolshed. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you that you need to put away your patio umbrellas. The key to making your yard unattractive to snakes is to eliminate what I call “low shade.” This includes shade-providing structures, objects, and plants that are low to the ground and provide both shade and hiding spots for snakes. Bushy plants like rosemary, lavender, or Lantana shrubs are notorious hidey spots for rattlesnakes in yards out west.
Firewood, rock piles, and stacked tiles, tin siding, or plywood literally create snake mansions. Many properties also have sheds that are raised slightly above-ground, creating a few inches of perfectly snakey crawl space underneath.
Speaking of crawl spaces… if your home is not on a concrete slab but rather has a crawl space or a basement, or a porch that animals can hide under, you must close off access to it or it will be overrun with snakes, rodents, possums, and other wildlife.
A yard that is unattractive to snakes (especially the venomous ones) has the following characteristics: the grass is kept mowed; plants chosen for landscaping are “spindly” rather than bushy so that they cast little shade and you can easily see the base of the bush; fire wood is stored on a table or other platform elevated a few feet above ground, with no debris piles; and snakes cannot crawl underneath the buildings because they are flush with the ground or because access under porches or into crawl spaces is blocked off.
If you’ve done this, you’re over halfway there. Not only will snakes be easier to see if they’re in your yard, reducing the chances of a snakebite when gardening, playing, or otherwise enjoying your yard, but they will be far less likely to stop and hang out in your yard at all.
There are two more factors that can attract snakes: water and food. Many of us enjoy the soothing sound of a fountain, or we like watching finches splash around in our bird baths, and some of us are lucky enough to have ponds or swimming pools on our property. Even if we lack these amenities, we might have a leaky spigot or hose. Mice and rats are attracted by the water and by seeds spilled from feeders by messy songbirds. Gophers and squirrels invade our yard from underground to chew on our flower bulbs and tomato plants. Several types of snake might raid your chicken coop to eat the eggs, too, although these snakes usually aren’t venomous.
Snakes need water and food, too, and they have good memories. Once they’ve found a successful drinking or hunting spot, they’ll come back for more. Eliminating drippy faucets and bird feeders is an easy step toward making your yard a non-haven for snakes.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to eliminate all sources of water! If I had a swimming pool, I’d keep it… but I would watch the area with the pipes and filter, and I’d avoid piling pool toys on the ground, because these areas are also snake hidey havens.
In some areas, pesky garden rodents are a double whammy in terms of snake risk. Ground squirrels like the ones that made the burrow under my client’s barn represent a major rattlesnake risk because they are tasty to rattlesnakes and because their burrows are perfect shelters. Managing burrowing rodents is key to reducing the risk of venomous snakes hanging around in your yard.
Once you’ve gotten rid of hiding spots, water sources, and the rodents and their burrows, you’re almost done. Even if you follow all the steps outlined in this article, there could still be a venomous snake in your yard from time to time. So, the final step is common sense: wear shoes in your yard and always look where you put your hands and feet. If you do this, you reduce the risk of a snakebite to almost zero. Children must be supervised when playing in the yard, and dogs have their own set of rules when it comes to preventing snakebite.
Despite all these precautions, some yards just attract a lot of snakes. Maybe you live near a wash used by rattlesnakes to move around the desert, or next to a rocky hillside where they den, or near a swamp where cottonmouths abound. You can definitely call a snake relocation service, like my client did, to remove the snake for you. However, chances are there will be more snakes in the future. In these cases, professionally installed snake-proof fencing might be necessary to keep them out of your yard.
Don’t let the specter of a snake in the grass ruin your outdoor fun. A few tweaks to your yard go a very long way in making it unattractive to snakes. Get energized, go forth, clean up your yard, and enjoy the summer!