Learn powerful up to date methods from the experts that will stop Rat Snakes in their tracks and get rid of them for good.
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Rat snake is a generic term for many different species of snakes. These snakes are common throughout much of the world and are not considered a threat to humans. Rather, because of their affinity for eating rodents, they help to control rodent populations which are considered a public health hazard. Rat snakes come in a variety of colors, patterns, and sizes. Because of their vast physical diversity and geographic range people have developed colloquial or local names for many of these species. The common names often describe their physical appearance specific to that area, or a commonly observed trait. For example, the eastern rat snake is often called the black rat snake because it is almost always black in color… except in Florida where its coloring is vastly different. In Florida, it is called the yellow rat snake, chicken rat snake, or the Everglades rat snake. The lack of preciseness in common language makes exact definition difficult.
Furthermore, with new information gleaned from DNA analysis, some herpetologists (snake scientists) now make the argument that some snakes that were generally understood to be rat snakes should be reclassified into a different genus. Some scientific organizations have accepted the proposed changes to the scientific classification of rat snakes while others have not. This leaves that specific question unsettled for now, but what you really want to know is, “What is this snake, and is it dangerous?” Beneath all the jargon and classification questions, the snakes’ habits and characteristics remain the same. In this article we will dive into the common rat snake species in our area and hopefully learn to appreciate these reptiles for their helpful contributions to humankind.
To answer the most pressing question first, rat snakes are not considered dangerous or venomous snakes. To fully put your mind at rest, research the various species of rat snakes that are found in your exact area. Learn to differentiate them from the venomous snakes that are found in your neck of the woods. There are many printed field guides available for specific locations, but generally your state’s wildlife commission or department of natural resources have this information on their website. They will often pinpoint the snake’s coloring down to the region or county of that state. This is very helpful, because particularly with rat snakes, the color variations between geographic areas are extreme.
Rat snakes may be single colored, or they may have stripes, blotches, or other patterns. Adult rat snakes are usually about 4-6 feet in length, but sometimes they grow up to 10 feet in length. Characteristic of most non-venomous snakes, rat snakes have round pupils and rather slender bodies. Their head is wedge shaped rather than the blocky thick looking skull of the pit vipers.
Rat snakes are considered excellent climbers and are often found coiled up in a nook of a tree branch. They have powerful constricting muscles and special belly scales that allow them to shimmy straight up a vertical tree trunk, power line, brick wall, or anything else they decide to climb. Because they are such proficient climbers, they enter human structures more often than other snake species. Shed snake skin in the rafters of your garage or barn is likely that of a rat snake. Rat snakes can easily enter chicken coops and are often the culprit behind stolen chicken eggs and missing nestlings.
Rat snakes are non-venomous, but that does not mean they don’t bite. If they feel threatened or cornered, or they are handled roughly, they will lash out. They do not have the hypodermic needle fangs of the rattlesnake or the cottonmouth, but they do have teeth inside their mouth. They will bite and puncture the skin, but an angry rat snake leaves nothing more than a minor flesh wound. Before they bite, they emit an odor that might smell like poison or venom. This defense mechanism is more noticeable to other animals than to people. Because there are so many species of rat snakes, their level of aggression and likelihood to fight or flee varies. When they are comfortable and handled kindly, rat snakes make great pets.
What Do Rat Snakes Eat?
Rat snakes do not strike their prey and inject them with poison, rather they use their strong muscles to constrict the life out of their chosen meal. Small prey they may just swallow whole, but larger meals, such as rats, require constriction. When snakes subdue their meal by constriction, they strike out and grasp onto the prey with their teeth. Immediately, they coil their body around the unfortunate animal in a few loops. Many people assume that constrictors suffocate their prey, or maybe even crush them causing broken bones. It is now believed that the tight hold placed upon the animal halts blood flow to the brain and other vital organs. This leads to unconsciousness and ultimately cardiac arrest. While the rat snake awaits the death of its meal, it actively monitors the heartbeat of the animal wrapped in its deadly embrace.
Rat snakes are ambush hunters and active hunters. As ambush hunters they position themselves advantageously, and wait for a meal to come close. Active hunting means the rat snake slithers about looking for a proper meal. Juvenile rat snakes usually eat lizards and frogs, but as they grow they graduate to mice, rats, birds, chipmunks, voles, and eggs. In fact, rat snakes are sometimes called chicken snakes because of their affinity to chicken eggs. If you are struggling with a rat problem, a rat snake or two in the yard will help to keep the rats on the run.
Rat Snake Habitat
Generally speaking, different species of rat snakes are spread throughout much of North America. Because their range encompasses so many geographic regions, it stands to reason that rat snakes can survive in many habitats, but each species has its preferred location. From mountains to woodlands, and grasslands to semi-arid deserts, rat snakes can survive wherever there is food and shelter. Some species are known to swim and prefer to live near wetlands or swampy areas. Rat snakes are well adapted to live in close community with humans. They can easily climb trees and prey on the many rodents that are drawn to human activity.
Common Rat Snakes of Georgia and Florida
Here at Nextgen Pest Solutions, our focus is on providing homeowners in Georgia and Florida with information that most affects their lives. As your time is valuable, I’ll limit the discussion of rat snakes to species that are most commonly found in Georgia and Florida. It is important to know the wildlife in your area, and this includes the non-venomous rat snakes. These snakes are often maligned or even killed because they are misunderstood. Rat snakes are a friend to us in the pest control industry. Rats are a public health issue, and anything that helps to naturally and organically reduce their population should be protected and celebrated.
Black Rat Snakes/ Eastern Rat Snake
The Eastern rat snake, also called the black rat snake, is one of the most common and widespread of all the rat snakes. The proper common name for Pantherophis alleghaniensis used to be simply the black rat snake, however, it is not always black. Therefore, the more accepted and appropriate common name is now the Eastern rat snake. This mostly black snake is also often called the black pilot snake, Alleghany black snake, tree black snake, mountain black snake, and chicken snake. The black/eastern rat snake is found in the mountains and Piedmont regions of Georgia.
As juvenile eastern rat snakes mature into adults, their coloring and patterns change. When they are young, black rat snakes have a grey background with dark blotches of brown and black marking down the length of their body. The young also have a dark stripe encircling their face. As they grow, they begin to darken and lose this discernable pattern. At full maturity, these snakes appear primarily black on top; if carefully examined, you may see the remnants of the childhood pattern on some black rat snakes, but for the most part their bodies will appear solid black. Many eastern rat snakes have a white underbelly and some have a white coloring under their chin.
Adult black rat snakes are usually 3-6 feet in length making them one of the longer snakes encountered. Black rat snakes are exceptional climbers. Believed to aid them in their quest for a high place to perch, their slender bodies are shaped a bit differently than snakes who are less likely to climb. The body of an eastern/black rat snake is said to be shaped like a loaf of bread through the middle. The flat belly comes up at a sharper angle than the cylindrical shape of most snakes. This body shape enables the black rat snake to climb straight up tree trunks, brick walls, and into the rafters of a barn or shed. Because of their comfort with heights, black rat snakes can and do get inside the attics of homes. Especially, if you have a rodent problem in your attic, a black rat snake just might move in to have easy access to its meals.
Black rat snakes are non-venomous, but they will bite if they are cornered, threatened, or handled roughly. Before they bite, they often emit a musky odor and they may shake their tail. It is believed the odor is supposed to smell like poison or venom and by rapidly shaking its tail, it might fool you into believing it is a rattlesnake. Despite their large size and menacing appearance, eastern rat snakes are harmless. In fact, they are a welcome sight to anyone battling a rat or problem.
Yellow Rat Snakes
Yellow rat snake is the common name for the eastern rat snake that is yellow rather than the more common black coloring. The scientific name for the yellow rat snake is Pantherophis alleghaniensis, just like the black rat snake described above. This yellow version of the eastern rat snake is found in Florida; but even between the Florida panhandle and the main Florida peninsula the coloring can be different. This is probably a result of yellow rat snakes interbreeding with gray rat snakes in the Florida Panhandle. Other common names for this snake include chicken snake and Everglades rat snake.
Adult yellow/eastern rat snakes are usually 3-6 feet in length. Juvenile yellow rat snakes are usually grey in color with dark splotches. As they mature, they often turn a yellow, orange, or reddish hue. Adult yellow rat snakes have 4 narrow brown stripes down the length of their bodies and generally have yellow irises.
As with other rat snakes, yellow rat snakes are commonly found up high in the trees. The yellow rat snake found in Florida can survive in many different habitats. In addition to suburban neighborhoods, look for yellow rat snakes in the trees in pinelands, hardwood hammocks, cypress strands, swamps, marshes, prairies, and agricultural fields from the panhandle to the Florida Keys.
Typically, in nature, bright vivid colors represent danger or venom. Not so with the yellow rat snake. Florida’s yellow rat snake is brightly colored but is a non-venomous snake. When approached, yellow rat snakes may either flee or freeze. Yellow rat snakes may give a warning with a tail vibration, and they will bite if they feel threatened. Although these bites are rarely serious, be sure to wash the wound with soap and water to avoid infection.
Red Rat or Corn Snake
Another common species of rat snake is the red rat snake, Pantherophis guttatus, commonly known as the corn snake. Corn snakes are common in Florida and other southeastern states such as Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Corn snakes are a vibrant orange color with large red block-like shapes outlined in black running down their back. They have an arrow or spear shaped marking on their heads. Their bellies have a distinct black and white checkerboard pattern which is quite different from the pattern and coloring on the top of their bodies. The name corn snake may come from farmers often finding them near the stored corn hunting mice and rats. Or, the name corn snake may be derived from the fact that the pattern on the underside of their belly closely resembles the kernels of the colorful variegated Native American corn. Regardless of which origin story is true, they both accurately describe the red rat or corn snake.
Because of its reddish orange coloring, the corn snake is often assumed to be a copperhead and needlessly killed. The copperhead, which encompasses a similar geographic range as the corn snake, can be distinguished mainly by the coloring. The corn snake, or red rat snake is a much brighter red than the venomous copperhead. Additionally, the pattern splotches on the corn snake do not extend all the way to ground as the hourglass shapes do on the copperhead. These distinctions may be difficult to ascertain in a moment of panic, but a corn snake is a harmless, actually helpful, snake species to allow to live in your yard.
Similar to other rat snake species, corn snakes are constrictors, and are often found up high in trees. Adult corn snakes are usually 3-6 feet in length. They feed on mice, rats, other small reptiles and amphibians. Since they are often in trees, they can creep into birds’ nests and consume unguarded eggs. Corn snakes require a meal every few days, making them great for rodent control.
Corn snakes are one of the most popular snakes for keeping in captivity as a pet. They tolerate being handled well, and with good care, they can live up to 20 years in captivity. Because they are popular pets, corn snakes have been bred for specific colors and patterns. If you see a corn snake on a tree branch in your yard, we encourage you to let it live. Although they will bite if threatened or handled, biting is usually a last resort for corn snakes.
Gray Rat Snakes or White Oak Snake
Another common species of rat snake in Georgia and Florida is the gray rat snake, Pantherophis spiloides. This species of rat snake is often called the oak rat snake or the white oak snake. In Florida, the gray rat snake is only found in the Panhandle west of the Apalachicola River. According to the University of Georgia the gray rat snake is mostly found in southern Georgia and along the Savannah River.
Gray rat snakes are light grey in color with dark grey or brown splotches down their backs. Unlike other rat snakes, the gray rat snake keeps the same coloring as it matures; the baby gray rat snake is the same color as the adult gray rat snake. In fact, the juvenile eastern rat snake looks strikingly similar to the juvenile gray rat snake. Like the corn snake, gray rat snakes have white and black checkerboard pattern on their underbelly.
Within their geographic range, gray rat snakes can survive anywhere with trees to climb and rodents to eat. They are common in forests, near tree-lined streams, and near human structures suitable for climbing. Gray rat snakes squeeze their prey and serve to reduce the pest rodent populations around your yard. Gray rat snakes seem to be less inclined to bite than some other rat snake species, but they will strike out if frightened.
What Should I Do About Rat Snakes In My Yard?
Rat snakes of all colors, patterns, and species are all around us. Aside from the momentary scare when we see one up close, rat snakes provide free, natural, and organic pest control. They also play an important role in the food chain as they are food for hawks, coyotes, and larger members of the feline family. As they are non-venomous, rat snakes should be left alone when found in your yard. In fact, because harmless snakes are integral to a healthy environment, the State of Georgia has strict laws prohibiting the killing of non-venomous snakes. If you see a rat snake in a tree or in your yard, step back and give it space. If given the opportunity rat snakes will almost always avoid a confrontation with a human. Nearly 100% of rat snake bites are a result of people needlessly picking them up and taunting them. Although unlikely to cause serious injury, I could do without a rat snake bite… I don’t know where its mouth has been.
There are things you can do to reduce or eliminate rat snakes from your yard. The first and likely most effective tip to reduce rat snakes is to sign up for your pest control company’s rodent prevention program. By proactively eliminating rats and mice from your yard and home, rat snakes will slither off to a more target rich environment. Without a reliable source of rats upon which to feed, rat snakes are unlikely to stay in your yard long. Actively controlling rodents in your yard can reduce other pest insects as well, such as fleas and ticks.
Often the recommendation to getting rid of snakes involves reducing yard clutter. While rat snakes of all colors do seek out shelter, they can often find this shelter within the protection of trees. While it is still a worthy endeavor to reduce piles of unneeded wood and keeping your grass and shrubs tidy and trimmed, rat snakes are such capable climbers they can find the security they seek elsewhere. However, the basic tenets of yard tidiness will help to prevent rats, which in turn can reduce the number of rat snakes calling your yard home.
Rat Snake In My House
Rat snakes are one of the more common snakes to make their way indoors. While rat snakes are truly harmless, it is simply unacceptable to allow them free reign of your home. As you know, rat snakes are excellent climbers. If unsealed areas of your home allow rats and mice to freely enter your attic and live in relative peace up there, a rat snake might take notice and investigate. In extreme circumstances, if left to the devices of nature, an unsealed attic can form its own unique ecosystem. In a cluttered home, if mice and rats are plentiful, rat snakes may live for a long time before they are noticed. Only the evidence of a shed snake skin would serve as warning. Properly sealing your doors, windows, plumbing, HVAC connections, and any other holes about your home can keep rat snakes and all kinds of nuisance wildlife out in the wild.
Despite your best efforts, sometimes, snakes get indoors. Whether they are hot on the tail of a rat or simply looking for a warm shelter, rat snakes can and do get inside your house. Some people simply can not stand the look of snakes. If you can not or will not carefully observe the snake to properly identify the serpent, you should call a professional snake remover immediately. If you think a corn snake has entered your home, but it is really a copperhead, serious consequences can result. However, if you know your snakes well enough and can positively identify the trespassing snake as a harmless rat snake, you can safely evict it yourself. Many times a rat snake can be swept right out the door it entered. If you are comfortable enough, most rat snakes can be picked up and safely deposited outside. Often people sweep non-venomous snakes into a bucket and remove them without even touching them. Even if they are indoors, do not attempt to kill a harmless rat snake. They can be safely relocated outside where they will continue to feed on rats and mice.
If snake eviction is simply not in your playbook of do-it-yourself projects, we here at Nextgen Pest Solutions have professional nuisance control wildlife officers ready to take care of your rat snake problem. Our snake removal experts can quickly identify the snake coiled up in your bathroom and safely get rid of it. While terrifying and alarming, most snakes that enter homes are harmless rat snakes. Nextgen Pest Solutions’ wildlife removal experts will quickly and humanely remove the snake from your home. Once the immediate snake issue is solved, pursue the question of why the rat snake came inside in the first place. Do you need to seal your home against nuisance wildlife? Do you have a rat or mouse problem? Nextgen Pest Solutions can help you solve the underlying cause of the snake in your house and prevent snakes from getting indoors again.