What can I say about this week’s featured creature, except that it’s probably met the business end of a shovel or garden hoe more than any other snake I know of?

And, it’s without good reason. The black rat snake, also known as the eastern rat snake, is completely harmless to humans (non-venomous) and is a rodent eater.

I had a relative who kept cattle feed in a storage shed in her barn. She often had mice getting into the feed and wondered why. My response was, “Perhaps it’s because you kill every snake you see around here.”

And I know she wasn’t alone in that type of thinking. A lot of people get absolutely terrified when they see a snake. I’ve seen grown men who fancy themselves as tough guys become absolute cowards when they encounter a snake.

You’d think people believe Satan himself possesses these creatures. Not true, by the way!

I know black rat snakes can be scary, as they can grow to 7 feet in length. However, I’ve captured many — and even kept some as pets as a kid — and they are fairly docile. Now, gray rat snakes (future column) are much more aggressive when handled and often bite repeatedly.

I recall one time when I was walking through a field on my way to go fishing. It was early spring, and the grass wasn’t just real tall. As I was walking along, carrying my pole and tackle box, I stepped over a giant black rat snake.

Before my right foot could touch the ground, I sprung into the air like a cat, as I couldn’t tell what species of snake it was in that split second. Once I realized it was a black rat snake, I picked it up and took it home. I then measured it and released it back where I found it. It measured 6 feet and 7 inches, by far the largest black rat snake I’d ever captured.

Description

Black rat snakes are not always completely black. They can sometimes be brownish and/or blotchy, especially younger ones. Most older snakes are shiny black or dark brown in color. Nearly all of the black rat snakes I’ve encountered in Oklahoma resembled the one in the photographs for this column. They sometimes have white or reddish coloring “between” their scales. For the United States, they are fairly large snakes, often growing to 4 to 7 feet in length.

There is a variation known as the Texas rat snake which is blotched with brown and cream coloring. It can be found in southern Oklahoma, but I have yet to encounter one in Pontotoc County.

Food

Black rat snakes eat a wide variety of creatures, but the majority are rodents, such as rats and mice. Other prey can include just about anything they can swallow such as lizards and other, smaller snakes. They are excellent swimmers and will even capture and eat frogs. They are also excellent climbers, which helps them to raid bird nests.

Once, while living on a farm, I heard some barn swallows — which had a nest under the soffit around our home — going crazy outside. When I went to investigate, there was a large black rat snake climbing back down the siding. It had climbed up and consumed either the eggs or the baby birds from the nest.

Black rat snakes are constrictors. Once they capture prey, they will coil around it and suffocate it to death before consuming it head first.

Habitat

Preferred habitat is wooded areas with grass nearby. However, black rat snakes can often be found near barns and outbuildings, and in residential areas and parks. They are mostly nocturnal, but it is not unusual to see one out during the day.

Range

Black rat snakes can be found over the eastern half of Oklahoma and over most eastern states to the Atlantic Coast.

Breeding

According to the National Wildlife Federation, black rat snakes mate in the spring, from May to late June. Females will lay between six and 24 eggs in a hidden location. There is no parental care for the eggs nor the young. The eggs will incubate for about five to seven weeks before hatching. Young are about a foot long when they emerge from the eggshells.

Odds and ends

• Black rat snakes are preyed upon by hawks, owls and other snakes. Younger ones are preyed upon by foxes, raccoons and bobcats.

• Black rat snakes will sometimes rattle their tail when threatened, probably mimicking a rattlesnake. They will also emit a foul-smelling odor when handled.

• Although I mentioned that black rat snakes are harmless to humans, if you handle one and it bites you, be prepared to disinfect the bite. All snakes have bacteria in their mouths. Also, it is wise to wash hands after handling snakes and other animals.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.