Snakes on the Plains: Certain Serpents Are Favorable to Farms

Although some resemble venomous snakes, these species are harmless to humans and help control rodents and insects.

by Leslie J. Wyatt

From the dawn of time, snakes have gotten a bad rap. It might be because of their long slithering bodies, beady eyes or flickering tongues. More likely, it’s the threat of death by venom and the clandestine way in which they move around. The result? Snakes aren’t very popular with many people. However, while some serpents definitely deserve their villainous reputations, other snakes are definitely assets, especially on the farm. Here are three of the good guys.

Garter Snake

Thamnophis spp. (pictured above) live throughout most of the U.S., with many species, subspecies and colorings. These snakes do have a slightly toxic bite but an ineffective means of delivery. They pose no danger to humans.

  • Nicknames: garden snake, gardener snake, ribbon snake
  • Mature Length: small to medium length, 18 to 24 inches
  • ID Markings: keeled (not smooth) scales, head wider than the neck and uniformly dark. Colors vary from white or yellow to green, blue or brown. All garter snakes have back and side stripes, with chin, throat and belly of similar coloration as their stripes.
  • Habitat: They prefer moist, grassy environments.
  • Behavior: Nonaggressive, they often bury their heads and flail their tails when threatened, but they might strike and even bite if cornered or antagonized. They also release a foul-smelling musk as a defense.
  • Lookalikes: some water snakes
  • Farm Assistance: They eat slugs, insects, small animals and small reptiles and amphibians.
  • How to Coexist: Just walk away. These snakes help control the creepy crawlies around the farm, and if you remove them, you’ll have to step up your insect eradication program.
  • Removal Options: If your property is overrun by garter snakes, remove friendly habitat options to help bring numbers down.

Black Rat Snake

snakes black rat snake
Judy Gallagher/Flickr

Pantherophis obsoletus is a nonvenomous member of the constrictor family that ranges throughout the eastern U.S. and as far west as Oklahoma and Texas. These snakes are also popular as pets.

  • Nicknames: western rat snake, black rat snake, chicken snake, sleepy John, pilot black snake
  • Mature Length: medium size; 3 feet, 6 inches, to 6 feet; slender, with large eyes and smooth scales
  • ID Markings: Juveniles have brown blotches on gray, rapidly darkening to adult coloring of shiny black with white lips, chin and throat.
  • Behavior: timid, although it may rattle tail and even strike to scare off predators. In duress, it will release a strong-smelling musk. The snake hides in loose substrates and hibernates in winter.
  • Lookalikes: black racer, cottonmouth (water moccasin), northern water snake
  • Farm Assistance: They prey on rodents, lizards and frogs.
  • How to Coexist: Share the territory. These snakes help control rodent populations. They might eat an occasional egg or plague a purple martin colony, but they do much more good than harm. Snake barriers can help protect purple martin nests. Gather eggs every day to minimize egg robbing.
  • Removal Options: Trap and release away from your property. Eliminate heavy brush, woodpiles and similar debris to help control the population, and seal gaps under decks, doors and other entry points.

King Snake

snakes king snake

Members of the constrictor family, king snakes get their name from their ability to kill and eat other snakes, even venomous ones, without being affected by the venom. They can eat snakes the same size as themselves or larger. They are popular as pets.

  • Nicknames: milk snake, chain snakes, chain kings
  • Mature Length: typically 2 to 4 feet; can be as long as 7 feet
  • ID Markings: smooth, glossy scales, with head slightly wider than neck and bulging eyes. Four species and many subspecies. Reds, yellows, oranges, tans, black and white arranged in bands, rings, stripes, patches, spots and speckles, with the exact design depending on the species, subspecies, individual and locale.
  • Habitat: rocky outcrops, woodlands, brushy hillsides, river valleys, fields and pine forests across the U.S. and as far south as central Mexico
  • Behavior: Kings are active hunters, locating prey by scent.
  • Lookalikes: Deadly coral snakes and scarlet king snakes can look similar at first glance. Though true only north of the Mexican border, remember this mantra: “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack.”
  • Why Helpful: Kings are great at keeping the rodent, snake and other varmint populations at a livable level.
  • How to Coexist: Though known to eat eggs and occasional baby birds, king snakes more than make up for this by actively seeking mice, rats, moles, lizards and snakes. Largely nocturnal and early-morning hunters, they are rarely seen.
  • Removal Options: King snakes favor living in burrows and hidden places. As with other species, eliminating areas in which they can hide and breed — woodpiles, old equipment, rock piles — will encourage them to find more inviting habitat.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.


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