The Black Rat Snake
The scene is a "Fourth of July" party along the river. I can hear screams and wonder what is going on! I am greatly saddened to hear that a black snake (black rat snake elaphe obsoleta) scared a few women at a picnic and was killed for its crime of being scary to the women. Black rat snakes are one of the very best animals you can have lurking about your camp, picnic or not! The black snake keeps down the rodent population as well as discourages the poisonous snakes. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much for low-nesting birds, either, but since it has the same main foods as the copperhead (frogs, rodents, eggs of birds, even other snakes-believed by some to eat the poisonous ones!) the copperhead, which is not such a mobile hunter (black rat snakes will even climb trees in search of prey!) cannot compete and hence will go elsewhere. If you don't like black snakes, then don't pick them up and kiss them, but never kill them!
Another ridiculous rumor I've heard is that they are now mating with copperheads/rattlesnakes and have venom. That's not biologically possible. It would be like humans mating with other primates and having offspring. The truth is that some timber rattlers have a very dark phase. Also, one of the learned behaviors of the rat snake is to rattle its tail in leaves to try to frighten off predators. I suppose some people are fooled into thinking this is from the fictitious cross-species mating! In fact, it's a defense mechanism the snake uses.
The black rat snake can reach a length of eight feet, but is usually much smaller, a big one running around six feet in length. They are sleek and thin, unlike any poisonous snake in North America except the brightly colored Coral Snake in Florida. The adult snake is mottled black with a white or creamy yellow chin and throat. The belly of a rat snake is a mixture of light and dark, giving a somewhat mottled appearance. A young rat snake is gray with light spots running down the middle of the back. This pattern darkens with age and is generally almost undetectable once the snake becomes an adult.
Alas, the population of these beautiful animals is in decline, much of it due to the thoughtless actions of humans. Many also fall victim to automobiles, since the warm asphalt of a highway lures many to their death at night. They do most hunting diurnally, but will travel and hunt at night in warm weather. In Massachusetts it is illegal to catch, kill, or harass a rat snake.
Rat snakes mate in spring laying 10 -14 eggs which hatch in June or July. Most are seen during this time period, as they are active during the day during the mating season. My late neighbor in Largent ,Steve Malloy, and I watched one climbing through trees along the river one spring. Later my wife and kids watched it hiding under our ladder, and then it actually crossed the river on the surface. I never knew they would do that! I once nearly stepped on one when I was hiking up over the hill with my trusty inner tube in hand. I had no protective gear on, so I pushed the tube over to the snake, who thrashed about and struck at the tube. All of the 'strikes' fell short, he was a big faker. He looked like an old kinked wire lying on the path until I stepped across him and noticed the wire suddenly got kinkier. That may have been the snake killed at the picnic as I described in the first paragraph. I do know that for a few years I haven't seen any near the camp, but did have to kill a copperhead that was lying still in front of a neighbor's house. That really was a dangerous situation, but I still didn't like killing the thing. I wish there were more blacksnakes to help keep the copperhead population low.
(Update 2003) I can't believe I got to observe this! Right off of our front porch, we keep a hummingbird feeder all summer long and watch the birds as they battle for dominance. One day when leaving in the morning to go teach a summer class, I mentally said to myself 'odd how I never noticed that turnbuckle on the wire going to my yard lights before'. You understand, this wire is about 20 feet in the air, and connects to a lamp on an Elm tree in my yard at about that height. After looking again, I was flabbergasted to see that somehow a small (under 4 feet I estimate) black rat snake had slithered out onto my wire and appeared to be sunning himself. When I got home five hours later, he had a lump in the middle, and I assume there was now one less humming bird in my yard. I like the little birds, so I tried to shoo the snake away before more fell victim to it. To my dismay, it crawled up into my eaves and disappeared, leaving me laughing and still amazed that I got to see this. We never did find it in the house, but it may have been the culprit that raided a cardinal's nest later that year. Yes, I know, they eat birds, but rat snakes are magnificent animals too. Give them a break!