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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Snakes are common across rural Kentucky, and play beneficial role in nature

Snakes are common across rural Kentucky, and play a beneficial role in nature. Warming temperatures bring snakes out of hibernation, usually by mid-to-late April.

“When they first emerge, snakes are covered with soil and silt,” said John MacGregor, herpetologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “They shed their skin within a week or two.”

A telltale sign that a snake is preparing to shed its skin is flaky, dry skin on the snake’s head or cloudy eyes. “Their eyes turn blue gray. It’s fluid between their old skin and the new skin. Actually, snakes are blind for a day or two at that time.”

On warm, bright days in spring snakes are often encountered sunning themselves on rocky outcrops, logs or even on the asphalt paving of rural backroads.

The Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) is found statewide around streams and can grow to more than 40 inches in length. (Photo by Todd Pierson)

There are 29 species of non-venomous snakes and four species of venomous snakes in Kentucky. All are predators. The larger species feed on rodents, and sometimes birds. The smaller snake species typically eat insects, mainly grubs, caterpillars and grasshoppers.

When humans are encountered, snakes often put on an act.

“They’e frightened, so they puff up their heads and try to look scary,” said MacGregor. They often coil up in a defense posture. To the untrained eye, they may look menacing and dangerous, but most snakes encountered in Kentucky are harmless.

If you spend time in the outdoors hunting, fishing, camping, hiking or just observing nature, it’s important to know what snakes to avoid. Here’s some species of snakes most commonly encountered in Kentucky farm fields, woodlands and along waterways:

Eastern Garter Snake

The Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is the first snake likely to be encountered as it is a common species statewide found in a variety of habitats, including pastures and gardens, in rural and suburban areas, and large wooded, urban parks.

This slender, diminutive, harmless snake has three light-colored stripes, on a black, dark brown, tan or greenish body. It’s belly is yellowish, greenish or blue-tinted.

Eastern Garter Snakes eat earthworms, frogs, toads and salamanders. Adults can reach about two feet in length.

Black Rat Snake

The Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta), is one of Kentucky’s largest snakes. This common, non-venomous constrictor that can reach 6 feet in length or more as an adult, and typically weighs 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds. Coloration varies, but usually shiny brown to black, sometimes grayish. Older adults are often nearly all black. The head is slim, with a round eye.

The Black Rat Snake is often encountered around abandoned farm houses, sheds, out buildings and barns, where they hunt for rats, mice, chipmunks, voles and lizards.

There’s a cream or yellowish coloring “between” its scales, and the belly is a light color, usually with black and white checkering. Young are grayish with darker blotches (saddles) down the back clearly extending onto the tail.

They may act aggressive when cornered, coiling up in a menacing posture, and sometimes expel a foul-smelling musk when confronted by a predator or picked up by a person. There’s a strong correlation between the habitats this snake prefers and what it eats.

In rural Kentucky the Black Rat Snake is often encountered around abandoned farm houses, sheds, out buildings and barns, where they hunt for rats, mice, chipmunks, voles, and lizards. When they live in woodlands, they often climb high up into trees, raiding nests to eat adult birds, young nestlings or bird eggs. They also enter bird houses to eat young birds or bird eggs in the nest. 

Prey is killed by constriction, then swallowed head first. They are mostly nocturnal, but are out during daylight hours too, especially early and late in the day. 

When cornered the Black Rat Snake may vibrate its tail in attempt to trick a predator into confusing them for a rattlesnake. This type of mimicry, where a harmless species mimics a harmful species, is known as Batesian mimicry.

While it may be helpful in keeping predators away, Batesian mimicry can cause problems for rat snakes. Humans often kill them thinking they are venomous rattlers.

Young Black Rat Snakes are especially vulnerable to predations by hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes and raccoons. Adults are frequently run over by vehicles when crossing highways.

Ringneck Snake 

The Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus) is a docile, diminutive snake that grows to a maximum length of only 15 inches. They are dark gray with a yellow bank around their neck. Their bellies are yellow, occasionally with one or two rows of black dots down the middle. 

The Ringneck Snake can often be found under rocks or logs, feeding on worms, insects, and slugs. Interestingly, several female ringneck snakes may lay their eggs in a single communal nest.

“Ringnecks spend most of their time hiding. They can fit in small places,” said MacGregor.

They are uncommon in the Inner Bluegrass Region.  Their preferred habitat is woods edge, and they are abundant in the hills along the Kentucky River and in the mountain counties.

Northern Water Snake

The Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon), is found statewide around streams, can grow to more than 40 inches in length. They are frequently misidentified, confused with venomous  Copperhead or Cottonmouth.

Coloration may be reddish, brownish, or light gray. Dark cross bands, in the middle of the back, are nearly always present but are harder to see in adults, as they tend to darken with age.

“Northern Water Snakes are harmless,” said MacGregor. “They are attracted to light at night and are often encountered by night fishermen.”

They feed on fish, frogs, toads, salamanders, and insects.  

Eastern Hognose Snake

An encounter with a Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is not soon forgotten.  When feeling threatened, it will flatten its head and neck and hiss loudly. It may roll over and play dead. This behavior has earned the snake some colorful common names including “puff adder” and “blow viper.”

Toads are a favorite food of the Eastern Hognose Snake but they commonly puff themselves up with air for the illusion of being too large to swallow. (Photo by Paul Sattler)

Adults may reach three feet in length. Coloration varies from yellowish or greenish with dark blotches down its back, or all black. This snake has a distinctive upturned snout.

Toads are a favorite food, but they commonly puff themselves up with air for the illusion of being too large to swallow. The Eastern Hognose Snake gets around this tactic by using specialized enlarged teeth in the back of their mouths to pop the enlarged toad like a balloon.

By law, Kentuckians may keep in captivity for up to five specimens of native Kentucky snakes for personal use, as pets in terrariums. “It’s illegal to sell or trade snakes, or other protected native wildlife species,” said MacGregor.

Check local laws before keeping snakes in captivity. Some Kentucky cities prohibit the possession of venomous snakes.

The University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, posts information and photographs of Kentucky snakes at: http://www2.ca.uky.edu/forestryextension/kysnakes/. Another source of information on Kentucky snakes is the KDFWR at: https://fw.ky.gov/Wildlife/Documents/kysnakebook.pdf.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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