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Ask The Nature Lady – Black Rat Snakes

Even those birds we have a special fondness for, such as these Carolina Wrens, must be kept limited by predation.
Even those birds we have a special fondness for, such as these Carolina Wrens, must be kept limited by predation.

One day I was pulling out some plants that were growing under my Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). This shrub grows eight to twelve feet in height and two to three times wider than it is tall. It’s a big mound of a plant with branches widely spaced and arching high above the ground. Thus I was able to easily work underneath the bush.

At one point I looked up and discovered a large Black Rat Snake resting directly above me on a branch. It was only inches from my head.

I immediately backed out from under the shrub and ran for my camera because I was excited to have an opportunity to photograph this snake. However, many folks would have run instead for something to kill it. Indeed, people often deliberately run over these serpents when they see them on the roads—a common occurrence at this time of the year.

It is unfortunate that man seems to have an inborn fear of snakes because that fear results in many of these animals being killed needlessly. But snakes are not as dangerous as people think, and they really should not be feared to the extent that they are. Instead, as with all wild animals, snakes should simply be shown respect!

Because snakes are much smaller than humans, they are bound to be the losers in a combative encounter. As a result, snakes would much rather slither away than interact with humans, and that is exactly what they will do if given the chance. (If they have just eaten a big meal, however, they may have to stay put to digest it first.)

Black Rat Snakes are one of our most abundant snakes. Adults are usually black on top and off-white underneath, although juveniles have conspicuous blotches. The chin and throat area is white or cream-colored.

Black Rat Snakes can grow up to six feet long, making them one of our largest snakes. They inhabit upland hardwood forests in the Appalachians as well as river swamps and lowland farms in the Coastal Plain. They are not venomous, killing their prey by constricting (squeezing) an animal until it suffocates.

Black Rat Snakes eat mostly rats and mice. However, they are excellent climbers and will also make a meal of birds and their eggs, something that greatly upsets people. However, even those animals that we have a special fondness for do need to be kept limited in number. I can make that clear with, for example, Carolina Wrens.

A pair will nest three times between spring and fall and, on average, produce four young each time. If none of those chicks or the adults were to die, you would go from two birds at the beginning of the season to 14 birds at the end, an increase in population by a factor of seven.

If year after year all of the wrens mated, reproduced, and survived, you would have produced 565 million Carolina Wrens from your original two birds in just 10 years! Obviously there is not enough food or space to support that many wrens in your yard.

Although it’s sad to lose chicks, these occurrences are a part of the natural world that people have to learn to accept. I have never removed predators from my land, either by trapping or killing them, and there are always plenty of animals coexisting in my yard. In all of the decades that I have monitored birdhouses, far more birds have successfully fledged than have been taken by predators.

So watch where you step, and accept that snakes are fascinating animals doing their part to keep other animal populations in check.

Naturalist Marlene A. Condon is the author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People (Stackpole Books; information at www.marlenecondon.com).  If you have a question about plants or animals, or gardening in a nature-friendly manner, send it to [email protected] and please watch for an answer in this paper.

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