Identifying Snakes – The Good and The Bad
21 min read| Updated for March, 2019
For most of us, encountering a snake of any variety can cause a scare. As startling as snakes are, though, they perform several essential functions in ecosystems and most pose little threat to human beings. These non-venomous species can help reduce the number of nuisance rodents and insects on your property. For this reason, it’s important to be able to identify good snakes from bad snakes.
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We tend to think that snakes only hiss and rattle, but they actually have a few surprises we hadn’t considered: they can issue a growl (different pitches per species), some can shriek, and they fart! Some snakes, when cornered, will force air through vents in their back ends resulting in multiple popping sounds, aka flatulence. But more than not, you’ll either hear a snake rattling through leaves (making the sounds even without an actual rattler) or hissing.
Snake tracks aren’t overly obvious unless you’re looking for them, or the terrain allows for them. Sand, mud, dirt, and soil are the best receptors for tracks to be found. Snake tracks, while clearly taking a ‘slithering’ motion, will either take on a side-winding, side-pushing, lateral undulation, or a scrunch-up-scrunch-out motion called ‘concertina’. Straight line tracks are generally made by larger and heavier species of snake.
Snake poop is pretty mushy and and smooth, and will often contain undigested portions of what they’ve eaten, including bones and fur. When fresh, snake poop is dark brown in color, but will turn chalky as it dries out. It comes out oblong shaped, with a white liquid excretion of urea. The size of the poop will specify the size of the snake, and its contents indicate which species you’re dealing with.
Having a cursory understanding of snakes can help you know how to address the animals if you see them in your garden. Here are a few helpful facts about snakes:
- Reptiles are reptiles which means their body temperature adapts to the environment around them; this may explain why you see them sunning themselves on warm days.
- Snakes feed on insects, rodents, fish, eggs, birds, lizards, other snakes, and small mammals.
- Because they are cold-blooded and rely on external heat sources, snakes in cold climates hibernate in the winter.
- Snakes cannot chew but swallow their prey whole.
- Snakes never stop growing; they shed their skin several times a year to accommodate their ever-lengthening bodies.
- Snakes use their tongue to smell and absorb vibrations that help them “hear” through their jaws.
How to Identify Venomous Snakes
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect way to distinguish venomous from non-venomous snakes. Since there’s no one feature shared by all venomous or non-venomous snakes, your best option is to memorize the important characteristics of venomous snakes in your area. Luckily for those of us living in the U.S., there are only four species of venomous snakes to look out for. Here’s a list of those four snakes and a guide to identifying them.
Cottonmouths are also semi-aquatic and are found both on land and in slow-moving, shallow creeks and rivers.
Cottonmouths or Water Moccasins:
These dangerous snakes are called pit vipers, meaning they’re one of several species with a heat-sensing organ located between their eye and nostril. Cottonmouths are also semi-aquatic and are found both on land and in slow-moving, shallow creeks and rivers. Cottonmouths are not as aggressive as they’re often perceived, but they will strike if they feel threatened or cornered. Here are a few distinguishing characteristics of the cottonmouth:
- Usually dark brown or olive with horizontal brown bands and a lighter strip on the head; some may be completely black except for the head stripe
- Can reach two to four feet in length as adults
- Heavy-bodied in build with some individual snakes reaching up to 10 pounds
- Usually live in the Southeastern United States
Copperheads are more likely to bite human beings due to their prevalence and a tendency to freeze
Copperheads are relatively easy to identify thanks to the rusty-hued coloring they’re named after. These snakes are quite common and live in a wide range of territories, from the East to West coast. Copperheads are more likely to bite human beings due to their prevalence and a tendency to freeze, rather than flee, when they encounter a threat.
- Usually tan or light brown with dark hourglass-shaped bands along the body
- Can reach two to three feet in length as adults
- Heavy-bodied with a triangular, rust-colored head
- Venom is not as potent as other species
They’re reasonably easy to identify thanks to their distinctive, bright coloring.
While its venom is highly poisonous, sightings of this reclusive snake are quite rare, making it less of a threat to human life. You’re unlikely to see this shy snake in your garden, but if you do, they’re reasonably easy to identify thanks to their distinctive, bright coloring.
- Thin body with a small, neck-less head
- Usually only reach 18 to 20 inches in length
- Distinctive black and red bands separated by thinner yellow bands
- Sometimes mistaken for similarly patterned, non-venomous snakes; however, if the red bands are flanked by black bands, rather than yellow, it’s not a coral snake
These pit vipers are identifiable by the signature rattles located at the end of their tales.
There are several different species of rattlesnakes in the U.S., each with varying patterns, but these pit vipers are identifiable by the signature rattles located at the end of their tales. While you can find them across the country, these reptiles are typically shy and slow to strike.
- Muscular, heavy bodies with diamond-shaped heads
- Most species of rattlesnake are two to four feet long as adults; however, some species can reach eight feet long
- Usually brown with either horizontal bands or a diamond-shaped pattern; some species have splotches rather than a uniform pattern
How to Identify Good Snakes
If you’ve ruled out the above venomous snakes, you’re in luck. The snake you’ve encountered in your yard is likely not venomous. Here are a few other signs that you’re probably dealing with a “good snake.”
- It has a rounded, rather than triangular, head
- It doesn’t appear to have a heat-sensing pit located on its heat
- It doesn’t have a rattle
Common Non-Venomous Snakes
Once you’ve ruled out the venomous snakes, you can focus on identifying the non-venomous species you’ve spotted in your yard. Familiarizing yourself with these common species can help you understand how each one will affect your property.
Their large size may spook homeowners
These snakes have heavy bodies and small heads and are usually yellowish or cream-colored with dark splotches. Their large size may spook homeowners, but they’re excellent rodent hunters that are usually harmless to humans.
Garter snakes are one of the most common non-venomous species in North America. They’re typically small, reaching two to three feet in length with vertical stripes, and docile. They benefit yards and gardens by feeding on slugs, earthworms, insects, small rodents, and amphibians.
They are excellent swimmers who prefer to feed on rodents, amphibians, eggs, and birds.
Black Rat Snake
Black rat snakes are mostly black with white bellies and chins. They are excellent swimmers who prefer to feed on rodents, amphibians, eggs, and birds. These helpful snakes can grow up to eight feet long and live throughout the Southeastern U.S.
Rough Green Snake
These small, docile snakes are excellent insect hunters. They are common throughout most of the U.S. and are excellent climbers and swimmers. Their slim bodies and bright green hue make them easy to identify.
Red touches black, you’re okay, Jack. Red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow
Kingsnakes are highly adaptable and live throughout North America. Known as king snakes because they kill and eat other snakes—including venomous ones—they’re powerful constrictors that also consume small mammals, lizards, and frogs. There are many different species of kingsnakes, each with a distinctive look, but they commonly feature bands of red, white, brown, orange, and yellow. Many people confuse kingsnakes with similar-looking coral snakes, but the adage, “Red touches black, you’re okay, Jack. Red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow,” can help distinguish the two.
Snakes hunt animals like moles using existing tunnel work in your yard; they won’t harm or destroy your landscape.
What Can Good Snakes Do for Your Garden?
Few people enjoy seeing a snake in their garden, but these reptiles can actually help in creating a robust ecosystem. If the snake is non-venomous and poses no real threat to you and your family, here are a few reasons to consider keeping it around rather than killing it on sight.
- Snakes are predators that solely feed on living things, which means they’ll never harm your plants, flowers, or vegetables.
- Snakes eat pesky insects like mosquitoes, cockroaches, mealworms, slugs, and more.
- Snakes eat rodents like mice, rats, and moles, which can help control the population of these unwanted animals and keep them from venturing inside your home.
- Snakes hunt animals like moles using existing tunnel work in your yard; they won’t harm or destroy your landscape.
Even good snakes sometimes bite humans if they feel startled or cornered.
What if I Get a Non-Venomous Snake Bite?
Even good snakes sometimes bite humans if they feel startled or cornered. Luckily, the majority of these non-venomous snakebites do not post any grave danger to their victims. They can, however, cause an infection just like any other type of bite, so properly treating the wound is crucial. Here are a few tips to remember if a non-venomous snake bites you.
- Make sure you’ve identified the snake as non-venomous but don’t attempt to catch the snake
•If the snake doesn’t release its bite, try holding its head firmly and pushing toward the wound; never try to rip the snake free as this will cause more tissue damage
- Thoroughly wash the wound with antibacterial soap
- Avoid bandaging the area so that oxygen can reach the wound; this also helps prevent the spread of bacteria
- Make sure that your tetanus booster shot is up to date
These bites are indeed highly dangerous, but with proper medical attention, most bite wounds are treatable and non-fatal.
What if I Get a Venomous Snake Bite?
Of course venomous snakebites are one of every gardener’s biggest fears. These bites are indeed highly dangerous, but with proper medical attention, most bite wounds are treatable and non-fatal. Here are a few steps to take if a venomous snake bites you.
- Seek immediate medical attention
- Try to identify the snake so that you can report the species to your medical team; if you don’t know the species, make a mental note of its appearance
- Never apply ice or a tourniquet
- Remove any jewelry or tight articles of clothing near the wound before it begins to swell
- Do not flush the wound with water
- Do not attempt to suck or cut venom out of the wound
- Try to keep the bite wound below your heart by repositioning your body
Serious gardeners who are seeking a natural solution to their insect or rodent problems may want to weigh this option carefully.
Attracting Good Snakes to Your Garden
Given all the benefits that good snakes can bring to your garden, you may want to consider making your yard friendlier to these insect-eating reptiles. Experts recommend adding a ground-level water source, like a low birdbath, and also creating areas where snakes can hide. These may include stumps or debris that create shelter. Of course, making your yard a snake-friendly habitat also carries risks if you happen to live in an area with venomous snakes. However, serious gardeners who are seeking a natural solution to their insect or rodent problems may want to weigh this option carefully.
Though they often get a bad rap, snakes are an integral part of the ecosystem and often a helpful presence in gardens. Snakes help control pest populations without damaging the lawn or landscaping. Learning to distinguish between good and bad snakes can help homeowners protect themselves while cultivating a healthy yard.