Everyone has heard the saying that the only good snake is a dead snake. I understand people’s fears of reptiles in general and snakes in particular, but this one is rarely a problem. Black rat snakes have far more upside than downside.
These graceful reptiles are usually shy and avoid confrontation. If something threatens them, they tend to freeze and remain motionless. This never seems to be good enough for some people.
Some adult snakes attempt to protect themselves by coiling their body and vibrating their tails in dead leaves to simulate a rattle. When snakes continue to be provoked they will strike, but the black rat snake shows great restraint. The expression ‘mean as a snake’ does not apply to this species. Still, getting bitten is painful and bites can get infected.
People who harass these snakes might notice that they have a defense similar to the skunk. When in serious danger, like being attacked by a dangerous predator, the snake will release a foul smelling musk-like odor. The smell is supposed to imitate what a poison-like smell would taste like. Unfortunately for the snake it usually isn’t effective on humans who are intent on killing them.
Black rat snakes are excellent climbers. That might be one reason they startle so many people. Either in a tree or in the rafters inside a barn or garage, these reptiles feel comfortable up off the ground. I can see why coming eye to eye with one of these big guys could be intimidating, but they’re just doing their job keeping rodent populations in check.
Commonly just called black snakes, these are the largest snakes in North Carolina. They occasionally attain lengths of almost nine feet. I’ve found that once they get about six feet or so they tend to increase in girth quite dramatically, so a seven footer might be almost twice as heavy as a five and a half foot long specimen.
Black snakes kill by constriction. Once they catch their prey, they wrap their body around it and squeeze until the animal suffocates. Their favorite foods are mice and other small rodents. They also eat birds, eggs, lizards, frogs, other snakes and bats. Most snakes hibernate in the winter and sometimes appear to be dead if it’s very cold.
Some people think that if black snakes are abundant, then venomous snakes won’t be. I wish I could say this was true but it’s not.
Black snakes can live comfortably with copperheads or rattlesnakes. They don’t cross with them, however, as some people say. Baby black snakes somewhat resemble copperheads but this is entirely coincidental.
I enjoy seeing a big black snake sunning itself on a flat rock or patch of dry sand. Still, I’d rather he’d not take up residence in my bedroom. I’d also like to see him stay out of the chicken coop and leave my skink lizards alone. When I see them in places they are not welcome I do my best to remove them peacefully. They are a valuable cog in the ecosystem.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.