Nature Watch: Black Rat Snake

A month or so ago, we visited Smithgall Woods State Park, and while we were walking back to the parking lot, we came across this beautiful, medium-sized black rat snake. Black rat snakes are the most common snake in Georgia, so we’ve seen a few of them.

Snakes were my eldest son’s first love. When he was about four-years-old, he learned a lot about them by attending the knee-high naturalist program at the local nature center, and later I bought him a poster of Georgia snakes, which still hangs in his room. We started making a book about snakes too. Even though he’s decided he does not want to study snakes when he grows up anymore, he still loves snakes, and his younger brother thinks they are pretty cool too.

By studying snakes with my son, I learned quite a bit about them, and I know which ones are venomous and which ones are not. Black rat snakes are harmless, but, of course, any snake can bite, if you bother them, so you need to be respectful of them.

Snakes are very beneficial to the environment especially in that they help keep the rodent population in check, so you never want to harm one, if you find one. You might remember that many years ago, we watched a black rat snake eat a squirrel in our backyard, and I caught it on film! (So consider yourself warned, if you click on that link!)

My family has a deep appreciation for snakes, so finding this one was quite a treat!

Backyard Adventure (not for the faint of heart)

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on September 26, 2012.

This past weekend our very own backyard provided us with an up close wildlife encounter.  My boys were playing in the backyard, and the way my son tells it, he was standing near our woodpile when he heard a squirrel screaming and a lot of commotion up in a nearby tree.  Right after that, the squirrel and a black rat snake fell onto the woodpile and rolled off onto the ground.

The snake and squirrel rolled a few feet from the woodpile and my son says our dog ran and picked the bundle up in this mouth but then dropped it again.  I guess that snake let him know he wasn’t welcome to have this lunch.  The black rat snake, which is a constrictor, was coiled tightly around a dead squirrel by the time my husband and I came upon the scene.

And you have to understand something.  A few years ago, I have no idea how I would have reacted to something like this.  I have been indifferent about snakes most of my life.  Neither have I feared them, nor have I given them much thought.  But now I have a six-year-old who loves them so much he wants to study them when he grows up. He already knows so much about them that he could easily identify this snake as it was falling out of the tree.

Now I have an appreciation for these under-appreciated animals that are important elements of our ecosystem.  Watching the rat snake eat a squirrel was a rare opportunity and a dream come true for my six-year-old.  The only time he stepped away from the scene was when he ran to the house to tell us what happened.

My husband and I stayed for most of the show too, and, of course, we videotaped and photographed it.  If you had told me six years ago that I’d lie down five inches away from a snake eating a squirrel, I NEVER would have believed you.

It took two and a half hours for the snake to eat his meal, but that was much faster than we thought it might take.  We tried to respect him by staying quiet and keeping a distance except when I took some photos, and once, despite my protest, my husband and son touched him lightly.  A snake is in a very vulnerable position when he’s got such a big meal in his mouth.

Black rat snakes are probably the most common snake you might see around here.  It’s the second time we’ve seen one in our subdivision.  According to the Savannah River Ecology Lab’s website (SREL), they typically grow between 3-5 feet, but they can get as long as six feet.  The one in our yard was about four feet long.

They are black on top with a faint hint of white between the scales.  Its belly is whitish near the head and becomes kind of checkered near the tail.  They can be found in the mountains and Piedmont areas of central Georgia and South Carolina, and they like a variety of habitats such as “rocky timbered hills, hardwood forests, river floodplains and swamp margins.” They also like abandoned buildings and barns.

They eat mice, rats, squirrels (yep!), birds and bird eggs.  According to the SREL, they love wood duck eggs.  Juveniles feed on small frogs, lizards, and small rodents.  Though I love some of the critters this snake eats, I know that they help keep the rodent population in check, and for this reason, I don’t mind having them around at all.  In fact, I welcome any snake into my garden as long as it’s not venomous, and the black rat snake surely isn’t.

It was interesting to watch the snake maneuver its mouth the squirrel and accomplish the difficult task of getting its front limbs into his mouth.  Snakes are amazing in that their entire skeleton pulls apart in order for them to consume such big meals.  Once he had reached the torso, he finished it much faster.  I couldn’t believe how quickly the squirrel moved into the middle section of the snake.

I can only wonder what that snake thought of us gawking at it.  The SREL says that when frightened, a rat snake will assume a “kinked” position and remain motionless.  They will vibrate their tail and expel a malodorous odor.  We didn’t see that behavior.  After watching us long enough, I guess that snake figured we didn’t want his meal, and his hunger was more powerful than any fear it may have felt.  My son sat by his side until he quietly took his bulging stomach and slid through our fence, hesitating slightly while he looked at us.  It was probably the most bothersome meal he had ever eaten.

Note: If you happen to read my column in the paper and you’ve been waiting with bated breath for these photos (lol), I apologize for taking so long.  It took a long time for me to put together this slideshow because my computer died and also I don’t like looking at them.  It was exciting in the moment…  I don’t get that same feeling reminiscing.  Also, though I have enough film to make a 77-minute video, I’m sparing you of that. Here is an under five-minute version.  I hope there are some other kids out there who will enjoy it as much as my six-year-old did.  It is fascinating. (In an icky way.)