My son Jaeson and I were out a couple of mornings ago, doing the daily farm chores. While I checked and reset our live traps, Jaeson went to fill the chicken and duck waterers. Suddenly, I heard a startled “Oh!” Looking up, I saw Jaeson, waterer in hand, standing statue still and staring at the ground.
“What is it?” I called out.
“There’s a snake here,” he told me.
“Is it a garter snake?” I asked, assuming it was one of the little yard snakes common to our farm.
Jaeson didn’t take his gaze off the ground. “Noooooo … it’s a big fat snake and it’s reared its head up at me and is really mad.”
I immediately stopped what I was doing and dashed across the grass to the run fence and peeked in. Sure enough, a dark snake with a white underbelly was reared up, cobra style, about half a foot off the ground, continually flicking its tongue at Jaeson, who stood perhaps three feet away.
“I didn’t even see it was a snake,” Jaeson told me. “I thought someone had left the garden hose in here.”
I walked down the fence line to come even with the snake and gasped. It was at least another two feet longer, thicker than a garden hose, and its tail was upright and vibrating swiftly back and forth in a blur. Rattler, I thought. The coloration didn’t match our state’s sole rattlesnake, the shy Massasauga, but that tail convinced me Jaeson was in peril.
I had him slowly back away. The snake remained in its defensive posture.
Once he was clear, we discussed our immediate options. With the snake just two feet from the coop’s pop door, we decided against releasing the birds, since we’d have to approach the angry serpent.
We decided to save this coop for the last/ I stood guard and watched the snake while Jaeson dealt with the other henhouses. Just as he returned, the snake took off at incredible speed, heading for the front of the run.
We dashed out of the way and lost total track of where he went, which resulted in us standing still and craning our necks every which way for a few minutes until Jaeson spotted him … under the duck shelter where the feed bowl was.
Jaeson let the ducks out, and fortunately they headed straight for their pool. This gave us the opportunity to fill their waterer and put it back in place. Our slithery friend, however, was not moving from the shade of the shelter.
Using a spare fence post, I retrieved the food bowl, which Jaeson filled. “Now what?” he asked. The ducks weren’t particularly smart. They wouldn’t know to look for their food in another part of the run. In addition, we were expecting rain and didn’t want the food to get ruined by the expected precipitation.
I finally made the decision to put the bowl back under the feeder and hope for the best. I started to carefully push the bowl in with the fence post, when suddenly the snake dropped down. I knew that position full well: I’d covered the Caro, Georgia Rattlesnake Roundup for the New York Post years ago and recognized that the snake was about to strike.
And he did, with lightning speed. I backed off and the bowl sustained no damage.
I waited a few minutes, then retrieved the bowl swiftly. I plunked it on a flat space at the opposite end of the run, pointed at it so the ducks might possibly figure the new location out, and returned to the shelter.
But the snake was once again on the move, and in a blink of an eye he was almost at the stairs leading up to the kitchen sliding glass door. He took a quick turn, went past our chicken tractor, and then settled himself down in the shade beneath my husband’s garden tractor.
Well, crisis temporarily averted.
Once back inside, I sent the photos of the snake to Dr. Michael Hoffman, an Army veterinarian who specialized in zoology, especially reptiles. I also sent the images to my father-in-law, who had been the chief naturalist at one of our state’s metroparks. Dr. Hoffman replied first.
“Blue racer!” he texted. “They’re endangered. Good to see one return. Non venomous and safe to us.” My father-in-law confirmed Dr. Hoffman’s identification, noting that the blue racer has become increasingly endangered in recent years and have all but disappeared from our area of Michigan.
Common Non-Venomous Field Snakes
The most common snake throughout the U.S. is the garter snake. More than 20 subspecies of garter snake, genus Thamnophis, exist in the United States and Canada. Garter snakes are very abundant in residential areas because humans create gardens, swimming pools, ponds and other structures where garter snakes thrive.
In fact, garters are often called garden snakes because they can be found slithering through gardens and basking in the sun in flat spots. Garters are very slender, are typically green with yellow side stripes, and can range from 18 inches to 3 feet in length.
Found throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, the brown snake (Storeria dekayi) favors open prairies, grasslands, agricultural areas and urban/suburban residential zones. Ranging in color from beige to brown, with a creamy white to pink underbelly, the tiny brown snake ranges in size from 9 inches to just under 2 feet, with 15 inches being the common adult size.
Brown snakes are shy and tend to avoid human interaction, spending their days inside rodent burrows, inside anthills or under log piles.
The corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) is an Eastern United States snake seen commonly in fields, meadows, forest clearings and outbuildings such as garden sheds, barns, greenhouses, and yes, even coops. Sometimes called a red rat snake, the corn snake is so named because of the Indian corn-type pattern of its scales and possibly because it tends to hang around corn silos, waiting for rodents.
Corn snakes are a very popular pet snake, second only to the ball python. It is a very gentle snake that is content to be held by its owner. And, just like chicken breeders, many snake fanciers breed corn snakes to produce a specific color or pattern variation, such as candy cane, sunglow, caramel and lavender.
Like the garter snake, the corn snake is slender. It can range in length from 2 feet to 6 feet in length.
The black racer (Coluber contrictor) can be found in the grasslands, meadows, farms, fields and roadsides of the contiguous 48 states as well as in Canada and Mexico. Many states consider the black racer a species of “importance,” as its numbers are steadily declining due to the loss of its habitat.
This non-venomous black snake ranges in length from 4 feet to 6.5 feet. Despite its namesake speed—it can reach 8 to 10 miles per hour—black racer snakes often falls victim to mowing and other farm operations, as well as vehicular traffic. Its cousin is the aforementioned, endangered blue racer (Coluber constrictor foxii).
Common Venomous Field Snakes
The U.S. is home to four types of venomous snakes: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths and coral snakes. While copperheads, cottonmouths and coral snakes prefer swampy, marshy, watery habitats and deep forests in the Eastern (copperheads), Southeastern (cottonmouths) and Southern (corals) U.S., rattlesnakes make their home in almost every kind of American habitat, including mountains, deserts, beaches, grasslands and meadows.
Rattlesnakes are extremely specialized predators. They have specialized organs located on the roof of their mouth that enhance their sense of smell. Their flickering tongues actually deposit scent particles on these organs, allowing them to use scent to detect prey. As pit vipers, rattlesnakes have heat-sensing pits near their eyes, which help them see their prey’s heat signature.
These specializations allow rattlers to hunt effectively in total darkness. Rattlesnakes strike their prey swiftly from a coiled position. When startled—usually by larger predatory mammals like coyotes, bobcats and wolves—rattlesnakes rear up defensively and vibrate the rattle located at the tip of their tail as a warning to back off.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the U.S., of which 75 percent are rattlesnake bites.
Contrary to popular belief, rattlesnakes do not consider humans prey and do not actively seek people out. The majority of rattlesnake-bite victims either accidentally stumbled across a rattler or for some reason decided to try to handle one.
The rattlesnake’s chief prey, like its non-venomous kin, are rodents. Because of this, the National Wildlife Foundation notes that the rattlesnake plays an important role in its ecosystem.
However, since mice, rats, voles and other opportunistic rodents tend to gravitate towards chicken coops, so will rattlesnakes, which unfortunately increases the risk of your accidentally coming across one. Rattlesnakes will also eat chicken eggs by swallowing the eggs whole, then regurgitating the inedible egg shells. Chicks are fair game for rattlers, as are smaller bantams such as Old English Games, Mille Fleurs and Dutch Booted Bantams.
Should you come across a dead chicken with a wet head, you can assume it was killed by a rattlesnake that gave up devouring your bird when it wouldn’t fit down the snake’s throat.
Snakes as Farm Benefactors
Should your farm be inhabited by non-venomous snakes such as garters, browns, corn snakes and racers, your best course of action is to welcome them as a partner in pest prevention. The corn snakes, racers and garters will decimate the local mouse, vole and small rat populations around your farm. The brown snakes (and the garters) will feast on pesky summer beetles, slugs, grubs, worms and other insects that wreck your farm produce, too.
Many herpetologists (reptile scientists) and state natural resource departments consider these snakes beneficial, since their chief diets consist of destructive rodents and insects, and urge homeowners not to kill them. Dr. Hoffman informed us that our blue racer would eat the field mice as well as the frogs and insects that tend to damage gardens.
“That blue racer is a keeper,” he texted. “You want to have him around.”
Erring on the Side of Safety
Still, it never hurts to take precautionary measures, especially if you have rattlesnakes in your region. Rear your large-fowl baby chicks in an elevated, covered brooder inside your basement or garage until they are fully feathered and about 12 to 14 weeks of age—in other words, too large to be considered prey by these snakes.
Keeping snakes out of your runs may prove difficult, as they can squeeze through 1/2-inch mesh fencing. The browns can fit through even smaller openings. A rule of thumb to remember is that if a mouse can get in, so can a snake.
In addition, corn snakes and rattlesnakes are adept at climbing and may enter your coop through the pop-door opening or a gap in the nest-box lid in search of eggs should there be a dearth of mice and insects. A frequent egg-collection routine can help curtail any potential egg loss.
Another way to deter snakes from the runs around your farm is to keep the areas around your coops well mowed, depriving these field-loving serpents of their favorite grassy habitats. Consider planting pungent herbs such as rosemary, thyme, garlic and chives around your run, as their strong fragrances can repel the scent-hunting rattlesnake.
If your chickens free range on your farm, be aware that it’s the snakes that will most likely be at risk, as foraging breeds such as Orpingtons, Wyandottes and Australorps will gleefully go after—and messily devour—garters and browns. I have witnessed this many times over the years. Poor snakes.
This morning, Jaeson cheerfully reported that he saw the blue racer near our pole barn, otherwise known as field mouse and chipmunk central. I am more than happy to host this endangered snake there and let him eat all the rodents he desires. I haven’t seen a corn snake in years, and I’ve never encountered a black racer. But we do have massasaugas, and I’m more than willing to let this shy rattlesnake join his speedy blue cousin in their quest for pests.