By Mark Fike
Snakes are either loved or hated by most of the population. There are not many that fall in the middle regarding their opinion of snakes. Ratnsakes are one of the common snakes in the eastern half of our country; this snake calls home to areas from Texas eastward.
They are commonly called “black snakes” but can be confused with the black racer which is very similar in appearance and they also are confused with the eastern black kingsnake. A ratsnake has a white belly with some light checkering possible. The very rear of the underbelly turns a gray color towards the tail. This snake can truly get large and grow to 7 feet in length.
These snakes are excellent climbers and swimmers. They will climb high into a tree to eat eggs or birds, and particularly baby birds from nests. My father once watched one go up a poplar tree 60 + feet to a woodpecker nest and eat the young. They have no fear of water either, so frogs are on their menu. These snakes are constrictors meaning they suffocate or squeeze their prey.
Homeowners often find them in garages, barns, chicken coops and sheds. This is both good and bad. They will put a good dent in the mouse and rodent population, but they will also take up permanent residence in the chicken coop out of sight and make some of your eggs disappear every few days.
I have had a number of quail eaten by them, not to mention baby rabbits, chicks, and of course the eggs from all fowl I have owned. For this reason I find them to have more of a negative effect on my property than positive, although I welcome the number of mice they eat! I simply have lost too many animals and eggs to these snakes. Removing them is a great idea if you can take them far enough away. In most states it is illegal to “move” or transport wildlife from the property where it was found.
They release a foul odor according to biologists, although I have never smelled it when dealing with the dozens of them on my place. Breeding takes place in May to June when females will lay 5-19 eggs which won’t hatch until late July. Prior to breeding, male snakes will fight each other for the breeding rights to the female.
They can live up to 20 years but are not sexually mature until the age of 4. When winter comes, these snakes will hibernate with other snakes, even other species. Their predators are hawks, cats, foxes, coyotes, and other snakes.
The young look very different from the adults. They have gray to dark gray coloring with black and brown blotches in a pattern on the body. Some people mistake the juveniles for a copperhead but obviously they are not poisonous.
The adults have a white chin and their head appears larger than the width of their body but not triangular such as a venomous snake would be. The bite of a black snake can be painful as they have tiny sharp teeth but they are not poisonous. However, any bites should be cleansed thoroughly as snakes have a lot of bacteria in their mouth to help break down food. Rise the bite out with antiseptic and put an antibiotic ointment on it.
Overall these snakes are not aggressive, but they will defend themselves if they feel threatened. The best advice for readers is to look anywhere you are putting your feet or hands before you put them there and pay particular attention when in tall grass, brambles, sheds, barns and near chicken coops. They love to be in these places. I have lost track of how many times I have seen one in my nest boxes sleeping off a heavy meal of a few eggs or chicks.