SIKESTON -- Plan on taking a nature walk, going fishing or camping this summer? Then prepare to see a snake or two, nature officials say.
"This is the peak time for snakes," said Missouri Department of Conservation agent Leother Branch Jr. "It's mating season, and it's not uncommon to see a snake in towns and in your garden and if you're hiking and fishing,"
But Branch insisted there's no reason to fear the slithery critters as many people often do, especially if they've seen "Anaconda" one too many times, he joked.
"People have a fear of snakes, and scientists have proven a lot of behavior is learned fear. It's not a fear you're born with," Branch said.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, few people in Missouri suffer venomous snake bites, and most bites occur when people are trying to kill or handle snakes.
About 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the United States. Fewer than five die, which amounts to a fraction of 1 percent. By comparison, about 120 people die annually from bee stings and 150 die when struck by lightning, the Conservation Department reports.
"Once people learn some of the interesting facts about snakes and discover that most of them are harmless and beneficial, their aversion may diminish," Branch said.
In this area, water snakes are commonly found at Robert Delaney Lake north of Charleston. A lot of private areas in northern Scott County see copperheads and rattle snakes, Branch noted.
Kenneth New, summer naturalist at Big Oak Tree Park in East Prairie, said it's possible to see about 15 different snakes at the park. However, water snakes are probably the most visible snakes at the recreation area.
"It's common to see them around the lake and a lot of people do get the misconception that any water snake is a cottonmouth or venomous snake," New said. "But that's not true."
In fact, all snakes can swim, New pointed out.
Of the water snakes, most people who visit the park, which is open to visitors daily, see the Yellow-bellied Water Snake, Broad-banded Water Snake and the Diamond-backed Water Snake. Also the Prairie Kingsnake, which eats venomous snakes, is also widely seen.
Despite others' beliefs, there are only five species of venomous snakes in all of Missouri. Three venomous snakes live in Southeast Missouri, and they are the Osage Copperhead, Western Cottonmouth (water moccasin) and Timber Rattlesnake.
The conservation department reports a pair of hollow fangs are located on the front of the upper jaw of venomous snakes. In daylight these snakes have eyes with vertical pupils while all harmless snakes have round pupils; however, this characteristic is not reliable for identification at night.
Even the underside of the tail is helpful in distinguishing the two types of snakes: venomous species have a single row of scales, while harmless snakes have two rows of scales, the state conservation department said.
"People can get bit if reaching under logs and walking in water or in wooded areas without protective footwear or if they're trying to pick them up or handle them," Branch said.
If a person does encounter a snake, the best thing to do is to leave it alone, let it pass or take an alternate route, Branch suggested.
"They're not trying to encounter people -- they're just like other wildlife and have young ones. And the mothers are protective and if you come into their immediate space, they do get defensive because of the predators," Branch explained.
The Conservation Department has already received calls from landowners and residents, mostly those who are not so familiar with snakes -- mostly the Black (rat) Snakes -- reporting they've spotted the reptiles, Branch said.
"Snakes have a place on this earth just like you and me," Branch said. "And if you let them stay in their natural environment, things usually work out -- if you just leave them alone."
For more information about snakes, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation's Web site: mdc.mo.gov/nathis/herpetol/snake/