A Guide to Black Snakes

A Guide to Black Snakes

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.

What is a Black Snake?

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.

Interesting Facts About Black Rat Snakes

  • They get their name from their favored prey: These snakes take their name from their favorite food, rats. Similarly, they get their nickname “chicken snake” for being found around chicken coops. 
  • They’re shaped like a loaf of bread: These snakes are not shaped like a cylinder. Instead, their bellies meet the rest of their bodies at an angle, giving them a bread loaf shape. 
  • They do not hibernate: While most snakes hibernate, these snakes brumate. This process is similar to hibernation but still allows for a partial activity like drinking water or becoming temporarily active if it becomes warmer. 
  • They’re one of the longest snakes in central North America: On average, they grow to a length of four to five feet but are known to be as large as up to eight feet long. This length makes them one of the longest snakes in the United States. They’re also the largest snake species found in Georgia. 
  • They’re copycats: They will imitate other venomous snakes by “rattling” their tails to scare away predators. This tendency has resulted in people confusing them for other, more dangerous species. 
  • They’re excellent climbers: These snakes are known for their impressive climbing ability and can quickly slither up trees, rocks, and even structures. Unlike other climbing snakes that require tree branches, black snakes are powerful enough climbers to ascend the trunk of a tree directly. 
  • They emit a musty smell: If threatened, they emit a pheromone with a thick musk; this is a defense mechanism to deter predators. 
  • Black snakes are not an endangered species: Black rat snakes are not an endangered species. They have the current status of “stable,” meaning they have a solid and active population. 
  • They can swallow objects larger than their head: They’re very adept swallowers, able to swallow objects much larger than their head. They’re also known for eating things that smell similar to or resemble prey; this often occurs with artificial eggs made of porcelain or wood designed to stimulate egg laying in chicken coops. However, they’re also known to swallow objects like golf balls and glass bottles.

Myths About Black Rat Snakes

  • They keep other poisonous snakes away: Having one of these snakes around your property will not reduce the chances of other, more dangerous snakes. This myth comes from the confusion between them and racer snakes; racer snakes will occasionally kill and eat other snakes. 
  • They lead other snakes to safety: This myth is where they get the nickname “pilot snake,” as they pilot other snakes to safety during the winter months. While it’s not true that they lead other snakes to safety, they’ll occasionally brumate alongside other snakes, such as the timber rattlesnake or bull snake.
  • They Mate with Copperheads: This myth is also untrue. They do not possess the ability to mate with copperheads. However, their young sport similar blotches to copperheads that disappear as they age and shed their skin.

Are Black Rat Snakes Dangerous?

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. 

Do Black Snakes Make Good Pets?

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. 

Where Are Black Rat Snakes Found?

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

When is the Black Rat Snake’s Mating Season? 

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. 

How to Keep Black Rat Snakes Away From Your House

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. 

  • Eliminate their food supply: The main reason most animals hang around your home is access to shelter or food. You can deter them by removing these elements. Keeping your property clear of trash and debris is the best way to prevent mice and snakes. 
  • Eliminate hiding places: Similar to food, removing access to an accessible shelter will help prevent snakes from taking up residence. Ensure access to all sheds and barns is removed by keeping them closed and filling any holes or gaps that snakes could enter through. Furthermore, snakes enjoy hiding in woodpiles, trash piles, and compost heaps, so sealing firewood, removing trash, and keeping the compost in secure bins will remove snakes’ places to hide. 
  • Keep a clean lawn and garden: An overgrown lawn and garden attract unpleasant pests and snakes. High grass is an ideal hiding spot for snakes to hunt and nest. Keeping neatly cut grass will ensure your backyard is a less attractive place for them to hide. 
  • Utilize snake repellent: There are many commercially available snake repellents. Most of these repellents are safe for children and pets. 
  • Spray clove and cinnamon oils: You can create an all-natural snake repellent by mixing clove and cinnamon oil. Add this mixture to a spray bottle and douse your backyard and home perimeter. 
  • Use garlic and onions: Garlic and onions contain sulfonic acid, which snakes find intolerable. You can mix garlic and onions with salt or sand and sprinkle it around the perimeter of your home to deter them. 
  • Ammonia and vinegar: Snakes have an acute sense of smell, finding extreme scents repulsive. Ammonia and vinegar are some of the most effective and safe natural snake repellents, as they keep snakes away without the use of harsh chemicals. Mix either in a small spray bottle and apply around the outside of your home, lawn, or garden. You can also pour vinegar into a swimming pool if you frequently find snakes swimming inside.

What Do I Do If I Encounter a Black Snake? 

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: 

  1. Remain calm.
  2. Avoid making sudden movements or loud noises. 
  3. Identify the type of snake if possible. 
  4. If the snake is not dangerous, open a nearby door and sweep it outside. 

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.

Final Thoughts

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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