Louisiana has abundant wildlife, including reptiles such as snakes and turtles. All are welcome in Yvonne's backyard wildlife habitat.
Rat snakes are attractively marked, non-poisonous constrictors which eat, primarily, rats and mice and some birds and eggs. They are known for their excellent climbing ability and their great length which can be up to 101 inches.
In the south rat snakes are often called "chicken snakes" because they are usually found around barn yards and have been known to eat eggs and chicks.
5 Important Questions About Rat Snakes
- How do scientists categorize rat snakes?
- How do I identify a Louisiana rat snake?
- What habitat do rat snakes prefer?
- How do rat snakes reproduce?
- How do rat snakes hunt?
This article will go into detail about each of these issues and teach you the pros and cons of having rat snakes around. In fact, rat snakes do a great service for humans as rodent control agents. Let's learn more about them!
How Do Scientists Categorize Rat Snakes?
Rat snakes are medium-to-large, nonvenomous snakes that kill by constriction. They pose no threat to humans. There are Old World (Eastern Hemisphere) and New World (Western Hemisphere) rat snakes, and the two types are fairly different genetically.
In the past two decades, the question of what is a rat snake has become increasingly complicated to answer. Until the early 2000s, both Old and New World rat snakes were generally thought to belong to the same genus, Elaphe. Recent work with Taxonomy places the New World Rat Snakes in the genus Pantherophis, rather than Elaphe. Genetic studies also indicate that the current species E. obsolete may be composed of three distinct species.
The Three Species of E. obsolete Could Be
- The eastern rat snake (E. alleghaniensis)
- The Texas rat snake (E. obsolete)
- The gray rat snake (E. spiloides)
In Louisiana there are two subspecies: the Black Rat Snake (Elaphe o. obsolete) of the North and Central areas and the Texas Rat Snake (E. O. lindheimeri) of the south.
Common Names for Rat Snakes include:
- Chicken snake (which is what we used to call this very long snake),
- Oak snake
- Goose snake.
- Corn snake, Elaphe guttata guttata
- Great Plains rat snake, Elaphe guttata emoryi
- Adult black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta
- Juvenile black rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta
- Adult Texas rat snake, Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri
How Do I Identify a Louisiana Rat Snake?
Rat snakes are very long (up to 101 inches). The Black Rat Snake (Elaphe o. obsolete) is common in North and Central Louisiana. When trying to identify a Louisiana Rat Snake there are several things to keep in mind.
Characteristics of a Louisiana Rat Snake
- Uniformly black dorsum or, at least, a dark background that contrasts very little with the blotches.
- Their patterns can have large dark blotches on a gray-brown or yellowish brown, belly mottled, or checkered background.
- Rat Snakes show more regional variation in body pattern and color than any other North American Snake. Some are very colorful and quite attractive.
What Habitat Do Rat Snakes Prefer?
Rat snake habitats are widely varied. They live all across the country and that includes many locations in Louisiana. Rat snakes like fields and briar patches, but they are not confined to them. Where you find a rat snake depends on several factors, including the age of the snake.
Where Do Rat Snakes Live in Louisiana?
- In the northern part of the state they occur on roads and in swamps, wooded areas, pastures, briar patches, cultivated fields, open sandy places, houses and barns.
- In southern Louisiana specimens were found near barns and houses, in trees and bushes and near swamps and bayous.
- Rat snakes are constrictors and their prey includes small mammals, birds and bird eggs, which they either swallow whole or break inside the throat by squeezing it with their vertebrae.
- Young rat snakes feed mostly on tree frogs, small lizards and baby rodents. This means that they can be in the brush and by the water.
How Do Rat Snakes Reproduce?
Rat snakes are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs that spend little to no time incubating. Rat snakes will lay a clutch of 6 to 44 eggs (but usually about 15 eggs) in stump holes, tree holes or other dark, moist places. Rat snakes reproduce sexually and competition to mate is high.
Facts about Rat Snake Reproduction
- Several females may nest together.
- Rat snakes have been know to return to the same area year after year.
- The eggs hatch about 2 months after laying.
- If conditions are right, females may lay two clutches of eggs per year. Otherwise, they usually just lay one.
How Do Rat Snakes Hunt?
Hunting and diet. Rat snakes are constrictors. They squeeze their prey to death and swallow it whole. The baby and young snakes may eat cold-blooded animals. They’ll eventually adapt to a diet where they eat only warm-blooded prey. The rat snake is known to wait and ambush its prey. The rat snake hides away in the brush and stages an ambush. Snakes will also actively forage for their prey and will pounce when the opportune moment arrives. The rat snake will go and eat all of its kill in one sitting.
The Rat Snake's Prey
- Mice, rats, chipmunks, voles, and other rodents
- Frogs, lizards, and other reptiles
- Birds and bird eggs
A Real-Life Interaction with a Rat Snake: The Pileated Woodpecker and the Rat Snake
The pine and hardwood mixed forest in which we live is prime habitat for Texas Rat Snakes so we have many interactions with them. One of the most interesting occurred one weekend, not long after we bought our place. I was working to clear one of the areas in the garden of invasive imported plants and vines, when I noticed a Pileated Woodpecker acting strangely about 40 feet up in a Loblolly Pine tree.
The bird was giving it's jungle call and pecking on the side of the tree. Then it would fly down a few feet and repeat the process. After it moved down about 15 feet, I was able to see the Rat Snake. The Woodpecker was herding the snake down the tree.
As the pair got closer, I found a long stick and waited at the bottom of the tree. When the snake was in reach, I placed the stick near it so that it could crawl onto it. It worked like a charm and in minutes I had the snake in my hands. I placed it in an empty aquarium with a lid (that once housed hamsters) and waited until my husband got home.
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It was a beautiful snake, but since we had erected many bluebird nest boxes in the area where it was found, we decided to relocate it to the riparian area down by the Tchefuncte River where there would be plenty of small mammals for it to eat.
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Questions & Answers
Question: I don't know what type of snake it was. It had the colors of a Texas rat snake but it had the pattern of a diamondback. It didn't have a rattle on its tail and its pupils were round. What was the identity of the snake I saw?
Answer: Wow! You must think I'm really good at identifying snakes. Because it had round pupils and no rattle, we rule out rattlesnakes and assume that it is nonvenomous. You did not say what state you are in, whether or not it was seen near water, the shape of the head or the size of the snake. If it was near water a nonvenomous possibility is the diamondback water snake, but you really haven't given me enough information. A photograph would be ideal. A wonderful reference book that may help you is Snakes of the Southeast by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas.
Question: How many people kill rat snakes?
Answer: Too many. Rat snakes are also called "chicken" snakes because they will eat baby chicks and, I believe, eggs. However, they also prey on rats and mice. I have a secure hen house and let the rat snakes live to hunt rats and other vermin that wreaks havoc on my autos and structures.
Question: Are rat snakes good pets?
Answer: I've never kept a rat snake as a pet. I have handled them, and they don't seem to like it. They snap at you, and when they make contact, their sandpaper-like "teeth" tear the skin. I don't think they would make a good pet.
Question: Do rat snakes have long skinny tails?
Answer: Yes, and they are also constrictors.
Scribble Down a Comment
CJ Fitzpatrick on July 26, 2020:
I have on that is eating my chicken eggs. I caught it and took it to an area which i thought was far enough away from my chickens but it came back within one week. I live in ponchatoula and need a location to bring it to that works for the snake and my chickens
Jan Hettich on March 25, 2020:
Came face to face on a walking trail beside Lake Martin in Louisiana. He was coming one way we the other We each waited looking at the other Finally the Rat snake left the trail into the tall weeds.
las on April 28, 2019:
Found one on the front porch by the bird feeder..
John McMahon on May 14, 2018:
Webster Parish, LA
In February found one hanging in a lolaby pine tree. It was sluggish.
In May found one slithering onto my veranda from a window trellis
kaytee on June 16, 2016:
I have run into the same rat snake twice within three days. Once it was in a pile of sticks with its head poking out. Second time it was coiled around my yucca plant three and a half times
FallenAngel 483 on July 26, 2012:
Lots of really good info on a nice non-venomous snake. Great job.
pimbels lm on June 19, 2011:
Nicely done. I do like to watch them, but I stay far away. Great lens, thank you.
enslavedbyfaeries on February 08, 2009:
Unfortunately, I inherited my grandmother's fear of snakes. It's a terrible thing because I know what a great service they provide to nature as you've done an excellent job of illustrating here.
rio1 on February 08, 2009:
Great photos and informative. Keep up the good work.