The Western Pygmy Rattlesnake is found in Alabama. / JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK/National Geographic Creative
CULLMAN – First, you may never see a snake, venomous or non-venomous. Many people, especially in the city might go their whole lives without crossing paths with a reptile outside a zoo. Others, however, will have several scary encounters over a lifetime, and still more will have a snake story to tell about every year or so.
North Alabama is home to several species of snakes, most of them non-venomous, but even those can cause fright so extreme that it could cause a heart attack, so even some non-venomous snakes can cause death, or make people think they are dying. Statistics compiled by the National Safety Council reveal that in 2004 six people died from contact with venomous snakes or lizards. However, in that same year, 402 drowned while in or falling into bathtubs and more than 19,000 died as occupants of vehicles. Further investigation would likely reveal that some if not all of the deaths from venomous snakes or lizards resulted from the animals being handled or otherwise harassed by the victim.
Almost everyone has at least seen photos of the most common snakes, including the rattlesnake, which is common in our neck of the woods.
The most common snake one might see around here is known by the name “chicken snake.” Its common name is Pantherophis spiloides.
Other names for this snake include Rat Snake or Oak Snake.
The chicken snake is fairly common statewide and is of the lowest conservation concern.
It is a large, moderately stout snake attaining a maximum length of about 101 inches or just over 8 feet. The gray rat subspecies is slightly smaller than the black rat, attaining a maximum length of only about 84 inches or around 7 feet long. The black rat snake is more common in north Alabama, while the gray rat snake is more common in the south.
The black rat snake has a black background color and may have traces of white between the scales. White marking may not be visible on all snakes. Some snakes have faintly visible dark blotches. Both are fairly common statewide.
You are most likely to find a chicken snake in terrestrial habitats but it attains greatest densities in areas where forests and farmland are generally intermixed and small rodents are relatively abundant. This snake will also be found in, or near, forested suburbs. Skillful climbers, rat snakes ascend trees or rafters of buildings in search of birds, eggs and mice. They may nest high in tree cavities, a position that may reduce mortality from fire ants and other ground-foraging predators.
The adults mainly feed on mice and eggs, but will also eat birds, insects, rats, bats and other small mammals. Young rat snakes feed mainly on lizards and small frogs.
Their life span exceeds 20 years in captivity.
Chicken snakes are useful in some ways, such as helping to keep the rodent population under control; however, they will still scare you when you walk up on one, and they will still bite you, even though it won’t be a fatal bite, unless, of course, you have a heart attack!
Black Racer: Coluber constrictor
Common statewide in Alabama, but declining in many areas. They include the following subspecies C.c.constrictor (northern black racer) and C.c. priapus (southern black racer). They are of low conservation concern.
The black racer (Coluber constrictor) is a relatively long and slender snake, usually between 3 and 5 feet long, but some individuals may reach lengths of more than 6 feet. Black racers are, as the name implies, solid deep black in color on their upper side. Their bellies vary from dark gray to black, and some white frequently occurs on the chin and throat. Their eyes are brown, and their scales are smooth. Young snakes are tan or grayish in color with a series of brown or reddish blotches running down the center of the back. The color pattern present in juveniles fades to black as they grow older. Black racers are alert and very active, and are quick to flee when approached, but will fight aggressively when threatened.
Black racers are found throughout the eastern United States from southern Maine to the Florida Keys. The northern black racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor) is found in Alabama’s northeastern counties while the southern subspecies (Coluber constrictor priapus) occupies the remainder of the state. These subspecies look alike.
Black racers can be found in virtually any of the Southeast’s varied habitats, but are more abundant in edge type habitats where two or more habitats meet such as the borders of swamps, old fields, and agricultural acreage.
They only eat snakes, frogs, toads and insects. When prey is captured, racers press down on their victim with a loop of their body to immobilize it, but they do not kill their prey by constriction.
Pygmy Rattlesnake: Sistrurus miliarius also known as “ground rattler”
The three subspecies of the pygmy rattlesnakes are (Carolina pygmy, dusky pygmy and western pygmy), all of which occur in Alabama. Generally, pygmy rattlesnakes, as their name would imply, are miniature rattlesnakes. Sometimes referred to as “ground rattlers,” they range in length from 15 to 24 inches at maturity, and when in a coiled position are roughly the size of a loblolly pine cone. The tip of their tail contains a very small delicate rattle or button that is not much wider than the end of the tail itself. When vibrated for a warning, the rattle is often difficult to hear and has been compared to the sound of an insect buzzing.
Carolina pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius miliarius) is pale gray to reddish above with prominent markings, one or two rows of spots on sides, usually with 23 scale rows.
Dusky pygmy rattlesnake (S. m. barbouri) is dark gray above with heavy black stippling obscuring pattern, with 23-25 scale rows.
Western pygmy rattlesnake (S. m. streckeri) is pale grayish-brown above with blotches forming crossbars, two rows of spots on sides, usually with 21 scale rows.
In Alabama, Carolina pygmy rattlesnakes occur across the northern one-third of the state and in the eastern portion of the state southward to Lee County. Dusky pygmy rattlesnakes are restricted to the Lower Coastal Plain, typically in sandy pinelands and scrubby areas. The western pygmy rattlesnake is found only in the extreme western portion of central Alabama, although the limits are not exactly known. All of these subspecies cross-breed and intergrades are found throughout most of the state.
This species is found in a variety of habitats including everglades prairies, palmetto-pine flatwoods, sandhills, mixed pine-hardwood forests, borders of cypress ponds, and in the vicinity of lakes and marshes, but are seldom found in extremely dry habitats.
Pygmy rattlesnakes prefer to sit and wait for prey to pass by. While waiting for prey, they will remain in a coiled position, sometimes for as long as three weeks. Although they prefer to sit and wait on prey, pygmy rattlesnakes will also actively hunt for prey and it is believed they will use their tail as a lure. They have been reported to feed on mice, lizards, frogs, nesting birds, insects, centipedes and spiders.
Pygmy rattlesnakes are most often encountered during late summer as they are crossing roads in late afternoon or night. Some might be very aggressive and strike with little provocation. When approached by humans, they often lie motionless as a defense mechanism to avoid detection. There are no documented cases of death caused by a pygmy rattler, although a bite can be very painful and could cause the loss of a digit.
According to Wildlife Biologist Roger Clay, landowners frequently wish to attract wildlife to their property or homes. Land is often managed with deer and turkey in mind and around our homes, songbirds are popular. However, it would be rare indeed – and a pleasant surprise – for someone to call inquiring about methods to attract snakes to their back yards.
Snakes are a component of Alabama’s diverse wildlife. Approximately 50 species of snakes occur throughout the state. A few commonly encountered snakes around homes include the harmless black racer, garter snake and rat snake. The odds of encountering a venomous snake are much less, as only six snakes in Alabama are venomous.
Homeowners are often alarmed when spotting a snake around their home after years of never seeing one. This apparent absence of snakes is most likely due to the secretive nature of the animal. In addition, some of the snakes around our homes are very small. Red-bellied snakes, brown snakes and earth snakes are small, (typically less than 1 foot long) very slender, and spend their time in search of food amongst the leaf litter and loose soil. Unless raking or gardening, these snakes go unnoticed.
No snake is a vegetarian. Snakes eat other animals and the size of the snake determines the size of the prey. Small snakes eat insects or other invertebrates while the large snakes eat birds and mammals. Unless your house is a haven for bugs or mice, there is no food in your house to attract snakes. The appearance of a snake inside your house is likely a random occurrence. While crawling about, a snake encountering an outside wall typically follows the wall and may enter your home through an open outside door or even under the door. Small snakes can crawl under or through what appear to us as an impassable gap. A good winterizing check of all the weather sealing around your doors and windows will go a long way in preventing snakes from crawling inside, as well as offering a savings on your heating and cooling bills.
To eliminate an unwanted guest, Clay recommends a broom, which will often suffice in sweeping a small snake out the door. For larger snakes, get a closed cardboard box with a small opening cut on one side. Place the box near the animal and corral the snake toward the entrance you made. The snake will often crawl toward and into the dark confines of the box. Simply remove the box to the outside after the snake enters.
Snakes are reclusive by nature and seek available hiding places. Shrubbery, woodpiles and thick plantings around the outside of your home will give the opportunity for snakes to stay hidden right outside your door. In fact, the best deterrent in combating snakes in and around your house is to keep a neat, trim yard and reduce the landscaping next to your house. Of course, the drawback is that you will eliminate much habitat for songbirds and other small reptiles and amphibians we all enjoy around our properties.
There is much unfounded fear of death or injury with venomous snakes, so it is good to keep things in perspective. Unless your home is in the middle of a paved parking lot that is surrounded by an impenetrable snake-proof fence, you will eventually encounter a snake or two over time. No need to be alarmed, as almost all of the snakes encounters in and around our homes are with harmless, beneficial species. In fact, the presence of a snake or two is likely an indication that your property is being managed to support a healthy and varied population of wildlife right in your own backyard.
Outdoor Alabama/ Alabama Department of Natural Resources
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