Introducing the Black Rat Snake


The days are getting longer. The sun is shining brighter. The ground is getting warmer. No doubt about it – snake season is upon us.

As cold-blooded serpents wake up from their winter hibernation we have the opportunity to observe and appreciate these fascinating creatures. Of the 37 species of snakes found in North Carolina, 20 of those have been recorded in Burke and McDowell counties.

Undoubtedly the most-familiar is the black rat snake. Like the majority of North American snakes, black rat snakes hatch from leathery-shelled eggs in late summer/early fall. The young are gray on top with dark brown “saddles,” which, in time, fade into the solid black coloration of adulthood. Their undersides are white, offset with some black markings. Typically, adults reach lengths around five feet, but especially large females can surpass seven feet.

Rat snakes are easily adaptable to many habitats, including those under human influence. For this reason, the rat snake, or black snake as it is often referred to regionally, is a common fact of life during spring, summer and fall in every North Carolina county.

Another reason for the rat snake’s success in the modern environment is the wide variety of prey it’s willing to pursue. As juveniles, rat snakes pursue and eat insects, slugs and other invertebrates. As they grow larger the menu expands to include, rodents, lizards, frogs, salamanders, bird eggs, small birds and even fish. Because they do not have venom to incapacitate their prey, rat snakes constrict their victims before consuming them.

In terms of human interaction, rat snakes are typically shy or indifferent when discovered. Their attitude quickly turns toward selfdefense if they are pursued or harassed, and who can blame them? If captured, most rat snakes will bite and often will excrete a nasty smelling musk to repel their antagonists. To avoid confrontations, rat snakes will often shake the end of their tails in dry leaves, mimicking the ominous threat display of the rattlesnake.

The only other large, dark-colored snake an adult rat snake can be confused with in our area is the black racer – which is quite similar in appearance, but has a dark colored belly, large eyes and smooth scales. Young, highly-patterned rat snakes can be confused with a variety of other species.

As with all snake species, rat snakes are important components of a healthy environment. They provide direct and measurable benefits to humans by keeping rats and mice in check. Equally important is the beauty and sense of wonder snakes add to our outdoor experiences. A day with a snake is much better than a day without.