By Sam Wasson
Updated Oct 14, 2022
Finding various critters and small animals while working on your lawn and garden is expected. However, coming across a snake can be shocking. Many snakes in the U.S. can be dangerous, and some can even grow to become an infestation if left unattended. However, think twice before calling an exterminator if you encounter a small, black, white-bellied snake. This species is called the black rat snake, or its scientific name pantherophis obsoletus, or elaphe obsoleta, and it can be handy to have around.
Also known as the western black rat snake, eastern rat snake, or by its more common name, the black snake is a non-venomous snake native to the central and eastern sections of the United States. Also known as “pilot snake” or “chicken snake,” it’s often confused with a black racer snake – another non-venomous snake. Black snakes live in various habitats, from rocky hillsides to low-lying plains, forests, and abandoned structures. Their favored prey is small rodents, birds, bird eggs, frogs, lizards, amphibians, chipmunks, voles, and other small mammals. They have slick, shiny black bodies with white chins and bellies.
Black snakes are constrictor snakes, meaning they use constriction, or suffocation, to kill their prey and are not venomous. So comparatively, they do not pose the same danger to humans as copperheads or cottonmouths. Furthermore, they’re typically non-aggressive and avoid contact with humans. However, like all other animals, they can become aggressive when cornered or afraid and have been known to bite when humans get too close. Even from non-venomous snakes, all snake bites are serious and should be seen by a physician immediately, as bacteria can fester in the wound resulting in severe infection.
These snakes are among the most common and popular pet snake breeds in the United States, right behind the North American corn snake. Due to their docile nature and low-temperature requirements, they’re a popular choice for new snake owners. They’re known for their ease of care and gentle disposition but are not the most affectionate. Also, snake owners will need a large terrarium to house them comfortably due to their large size and love of climbing. They’re also beloved as pets due to their long life spans, living 10-15 years in the wild, and even longer in captivity.
These snakes dwell in rocky hillsides, forests, plains, and flat farmland. However, they live in unattended structures such as barns, dilapidated homes, abandoned vehicles, and trash or debris piles. They primarily hunt rats and mice, so they will be naturally drawn to locations housing them; this results in them often living in or around human structures. Black rat snakes also have a habit of getting into places they shouldn’t, such as rafters, lofts, or upper support structures of barns.
They’re found all across the central and eastern portions of North America. They’re most common in North Carolina, Louisiana, and South Carolina, but they can be found in the New England area.
Due to their docile, skittish nature and love of hunting rats, many homeowners enjoy having them around and find their presence helpful. Farmers are known to place these snakes in and around their property for natural pest control.
Black rat snakes emerge from brumating in late spring or early summer. After several weeks they will begin to look for mates. After mating, female black snakes will look for a safe, secure area to lay their eggs. The eggs will incubate for about two months, after which they will hatch. They’re not the most doting parents, as once the baby snakes have emerged from their eggs, they’re on their own. Thankfully, the hatchlings emerge around a foot long and are more than capable of taking care of themselves. These baby snakes are often confused with copperheads due to their temporary coloring but turn more black as they age.
While many homeowners find these snakes helpful as pest deterrents, others prefer to keep them away from their homes. Thankfully, there are several humane ways to keep them well away from your property.
If you encounter a black snake in the wild, it’s always best to leave it alone and keep your distance. If it notices you, it will likely flee to safety. If threatened, it will begin releasing a musky odor and, if agitated further, will coil up and bite. If you find one of these snakes in your home, the best solution is to:
If you’re unsure of the snake species, the snake is inherently dangerous (such as a rattlesnake), or if the snake is too large to sweep outside safely, it’s best to call animal control or pest control to remove and relocate the snake safely.
North America is home to over 50 snake species, many venomous, so spotting one on your property can cause concern. However, the black rat snake thankfully does more good than harm. It acts as a natural means of pest control, and with a timid and non-aggressive nature, this sizable snake poses little threat.
Renowned for its impressive climbing abilities, above average size, propensity for brumating with other snakes, and ability to imitate rattlesnakes, the black rat snake is quite the character. It’s no surprise that they’re beloved as pets, as their quirky nature and ease of care make them ideal for new snake owners.
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