Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Black Rat Snakes

Black Rat Snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta), are one of my favorite snakes. They are abundant and probably one of the most commonly seen snakes in Missouri. As young they look completely different from their adult counterpart. They are grayish-tan with darker patterns.

As they age they take on their trademark glossy black coloring. The pattern fades to a somewhat reddish tint, then disappears almost entirely in older snakes. They are a rather large snake reaching lengths of up to 6 feet. They are relatively tolerant of people and tame down easily. Baby black snakes will bite and act aggressive, as is typical of most baby snakes. Seems they haven't learned what is dinner and what isn't, and bite at everything. They use that aggressiveness to defend themselves as well. I suppose if someone or something 50X larger than me grabbed me I would bite too.
Another defense mechanism they will implement is to shake their tail in dried grasses or dry leaves, this rattling sound mimics the venomous rattlesnake and may afford them some protection from predation or from being captured. Although this behavior can backfire and result in their death. Many humans are fearful of venomous snakes and are quick to kill one. If the young black snake is too convincing, it may pay with its life.

One day last summer I received a call at work from my mother, exclaiming that she couldn't get into the church where she was due at a meeting. I asked her "why not". She kind of laughed and said there was a snake sitting by the door and would not let her pass. Now you have to see the humor in this situation....a snake at church keeping members out? Hello...Adam and Eve all over again?
I told her I would be right there...I wasn't missing this for anything. I got to the church to find my mother and two other ladies standing on the sidewalk several feet away from a 4 foot long black rat snake. One of the women held a hanger (was she planning to hang it out to dry?) The situation was humorous, but these ladies were trying their best to be brave; as well as get this snake away from the church. I moved it further down the sidewalk thinking it would leave the area once it realized it wasn't welcome. Oh no....it couldn't be that easy. This snake decided to climb the wall of the church and try to enter through a dryer vent. "You've got to be kidding me!"
So I pulled him out of the dryer vent and ask if I could borrow the woman's hanger. I used the hanger to lift his head and I grabbed his tail and carried him a block away to a field of tall grasses. Hopefully he stayed put. He sure seemed determined to go to church!
I guess the congregation had a few laughs over the situation. One even suggested an exorcism of the church. The snake came on the tail end of finding a mouse and a bat in the church. Maybe a priest needs to be called?

I personally like snakes, and have six for pets that I use on a regular basis for educational programs. I find it gratifying to change peoples attitudes about these often misaligned creatures. With so much myth and mystery surrounding snakes, they are often mistakenly labeled the "bad guy" and destroyed needlessly. They are creatures to be viewed with a certain amount of awe. One game I like to play with the children at my programs is the "snake race". I ask for volunteers who wish to pretend they are a snake. After several children all excitedly come forward, I have them lay down on the floor, and place their arms and hands straight down their sides. Their legs have to be stretched out straight. In this prone position I tell them they have to race (a predetermined distance) without using their arms, hands, legs or feet. No elbows, no knees. If they use any of these appendages, they are out. The last one left that crosses the finish line wins. They get to see just how hard it would be to move like a snake. Then I tell them how snakes are specially designed with hundreds of very strong muscles, and moving like a snake is natural to them. There is much laughing and cheering every time we play this game.

We have an old stump in the back yard, which is the remnants of a large maple tree we had to cut down many years ago. The interior of this stump is made up of potting soil, and decaying pieces of the tree. It is a perfect substrate for black snakes to lay their eggs. Each year we have two adult black snakes use this stump to burying their eggs. Two years ago I dug up the eggs to count them, there were 38 eggs in total. I kept 5 eggs and incubated them in my office. All 5 hatched and we kept one juvenile snake to use as a program snake.

This past season the black snakes returned and laid eggs once again, this time 35 in total. To say we have no shortage of these snakes around our farm would be an understatement. Several years ago we discovered that the black snakes were in the basement. They would show up in March crawling in the rafters or various other places. We searched around the foundation of the house to try and locate their entrance point. We plugged several small holes, and thought we solved the problem of them entering the house. Turns out that we did not find their entrance. Each year they return. We've now discovered that they are brumating (sleeping) in a crawl space at one end of our basement that leads back underneath an addition on the house. I've found several snake skins and saw one juvenile black snake crawling on the block wall.

As a snake enthusiast I am excited by this information, my husband less so. He wants me to crawl in there and remove them. First of all, I am more scared of the crawlspace  than the snakes that are living in it. Second of all, it is mid-winter and much to cold to turn them outside. I know once spring arrives they will come out of hiding and I can take them outside then. I am not sure why the snakes chose this location 5 years ago to rest over the winter, but I can't help but feel it is because they know they are safe and will be tolerated. Thanks to these snakes that hang around our home, I have not had a mouse in the house in 6 or 7 years. I would much rather have the snakes which do not cause any problems and do not spread disease. Mice on the other hand carry many diseases that can be spread to humans, their feces and urine contaminate food. Their constant chewing destroys our stored items, whether it is papers or fabrics doesn't seem to matter to the mice when they are looking for nesting material. They have large litters and quite often. They reproduce rapidly and can be difficult to get rid of. The next time you see a snake near your property, give thanks, chances are it is feeding on the mice you might not even be aware are there.

1 comment:

  1. Rat snakes enter people's homes rather frequently, the reason being that they are good climbers and their prey are in abundance close to residential areas. Ratsnakes are not dangerous and mostly not aggressive although they will vibrate their tails and behave aggressively towards anybody trying to corner them. Source: ratsnake.org