Snakes

Eastern Garter Snake on leaves
Eastern Garter Snake

Snakes are reptiles, like turtles and lizards. Early snakes first appeared during the time of the dinosaurs, and they now live on every continent except Antarctica. Though snakes often get a bad rap, the vast majority of species aren’t venomous. They also provide a valuable service by eating potential pests, like mice and slugs.

In fact, snakes have more to fear from us than we do from them. Many species have suffered from persecution and habitat loss. Three snake species are listed as Endangered in Massachusetts, and one is listed as Threatened.

Snake Species in Massachusetts

There are 14 species of snakes that call Massachusetts home, most of which are non-venomous, including those most often found in yards or basements: the eastern garter snake and eastern milk snake. The two venomous species, the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead, are very rare, and prefer rocky, forested hillsides.

Black rat snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis)

Rat snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
Rat snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

The largest snake in Massachusetts, the black rat snake grows up to 101”. It’s found in the Connecticut River Valley, and eats small mammals, birds, and amphibians. Adults are mostly black, with a white throat, and juveniles are mottled grey. Its scales are lightly keeled (they have a small ridge, as on the bottom of a boat).

Status: Endangered in Massachusetts, and, under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to kill, harass, or possess this snake.


DeKay’s brownsnake (Storeria dekayi)

DeKays Brown snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
DeKays Brown snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Dekay's brownsnake is often seen in urban and suburban areas, where it eats pests like slugs. It’s fairly small, between 9-13” long, and is skittish and shy. It is creamy beige-brown, with keeled scales, and dark brown spots down the back.


Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

Eastern garter snake © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon
Eastern garter snake © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon

The eastern garter snake is one of our most commonly-seen snakes. It has long stripes down its body, but lacks the burgundy stripe and white eye spot of the rarer eastern ribbon snake. It eats amphibians, fish, small mammals, earthworms, and sometimes insects. People often mistakenly call this snake a “garden snake,” because it can sometimes be seen in gardens. However, the name “garter snake” comes from the old fashion of wearing garters—strips of fabric that held up stockings.


Eastern black racer (Coluber constrictor)

Black racer snake © Dr. Charles F. Smith
Black racer snake © Dr. Charles F. Smith

The eastern black racer grows fairly large, up to 73” long. Like the black rat snake, it is mostly black, but it has smooth scales. Young snakes are mottled grey-blue and brown. This snake may be more prone to striking if threatened, but this behavior is a bluff; it is non-venomous.


Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos)

Hognose snake © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon
Hognose snake © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon

This snake is named for its turned-up nose. Its body color varies from yellow to brown to black, and it has keeled scales. When threatened, this harmless snake may flatten its head like a cobra, and then play dead. Its diet is varied, but it prefers to eat toads.


Eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum)

Eastern Milk Snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
Eastern Milk Snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

The eastern milk snake has a mottled grey, brown, and reddish body. This non-venomous snake is often confused for a rattlesnake, but it lacks the rattle, keeled scales, and cat-like pupils. It’s found in fields, woodlands, rocky hillsides, and wetland edges, and primarily eats small mammals.


Eastern ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus)

Ribbon snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
Ribbon snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Elegant and slender, the eastern ribbon snake has keeled scales. It looks much like an eastern garter snake, in that it has yellow and black stripes, but it also has thick burgundy stripes and a white mark by the eye. It lives in wetlands and eats amphibians, fish, and sometimes insects.


Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus)

Worm Snake © Tom Tyning westernmassnaturalist.org
Worm Snake © Tom Tyning westernmassnaturalist.org

The eastern worm snake is smooth and pinkish-gray—much like a worm—and, in fact, earthworms are its main prey. It’s fairly small, usually measuring from 7-11” long. This species is found in the Connecticut River Valley.

Status: Threatened in Massachusetts, and, under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to kill, harass, or possess this snake.


Northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)

Copperhead Snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
Copperhead Snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Venomous, the northern copperhead is extremely rare to encounter. It has a thick, heavy body, with keeled scales, a triangular head, and a thin, cat-like pupil. Its brown and orange body is well-camouflaged against the forest floor.

Status: Endangered in the Massachusetts, and, under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to kill, harass, or possess this snake.


Northern red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata)

red-bellied snake © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon
Red-bellied snake © Rosemary Mosco, Mass Audubon

Similar to the DeKay’s brownsnake, the northern red-bellied snake is small, with keeled scales and a brown back, and often eats slugs and worms. However, it’s generally less tolerant of urban and suburban areas than the brownsnake, and it has a bright red belly.


Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon)

Northern Water Snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
Northern Water Snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

The northern water snake can grow fairly large, up to 55” long. It has heavily keeled scales, and a complex, varying pattern of browns, blacks, and grays. It’s found in wetlands—you may see it swimming—and it primarily eats amphibians and fish.


Ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus)

Ring-Necked Snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
© Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

The ringneck snake is named for the yellow ring around its neck. It’s typically found in moist wetlands, where it eats red-backed salamanders. This snake is slender and small, usually measuring from 10-15” long. It has smooth scales and a grey back.


Smooth greensnake (Opheodrys vernalis)

Smooth Green Snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
© Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

True to its name, the smooth greensnake is smooth and green. It prefers areas of thick foliage, where it can blend in. This gentle snake helpfully eats a number of insects, beetles, and other small creatures.


Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

Timber Rattlesnake © Dr. Charles F. Smith
Timber Rattlesnake © Dr. Charles F. Smith

Venomous, the timber rattlesnake is extremely rare and localized. It has a heavy body, a triangular head, a slitted, cat-like pupil, and a rattle that it uses to warn potential predators. It prefers rocky, forested areas.

Status: Endangered in Massachusetts, and, under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to kill, harass, or possess this snake. 


Behavior

Snakes are ectotherms, which means that they can’t regulate their body temperature from within, as humans do. Instead, they use their environment, basking in the sun to keep warm or slipping underground to cool off.

Snakes prefer to avoid people, and will generally only bite when they are picked up, stepped on, or otherwise provoked. Though most of our snakes are harmless, several species have defensive displays, like exuding a smelly musk or rattling their tails. These harmless behaviors often cause frightened people to kill the snake. 

All snakes are carnivores, which means they eat meat. Their diet varies with size and species, and can include insects, worms, amphibians, fish, small mammals, and occasionally birds.

Life Cycle

Snakes breed during the warmer months; most of our species mate in the late spring, and have young in the summer. Some species, like the eastern milk snake, lay eggs. Others, like the timber rattlesnake, give birth to live young.

In the fall, snakes seek shelter in places like rock crevices and mammal burrows. It’s not uncommon for snakes of different species to den together in the winter.

Snakes never stop growing, and every now and then, they must shed the skin that they’ve outgrown. Younger snakes, which grow more quickly, may shed a few times a year, and mature snakes shed less frequently.

Situations & Solutions

For some people, spotting a snake in the wild is an exciting and special experience, but for others, it may provoke anxiety. Fortunately, the snakes you’re likely to find in your yard in Massachusetts aren’t venomous. The two venomous species, the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake, are endangered, and they prefer rocky, forested hillsides.

Snake Bites

Snakes prefer to avoid people, and will generally only bite when they are picked up, stepped on, or otherwise provoked. Fortunately, snakes do not carry diseases that are transmissible to humans.

A bite from a non-poisonous snake should be treated like any puncture wound: wash thoroughly and apply an antiseptic. A person bitten by a poisonous snake, such as the northern copperhead and the timber rattlesnake, should seek medical attention at the emergency room of the nearest hospital.

Management Options

Suburban yards can provide good habitat for snakes, which may seek cover under stairways, shrubs, wood piles, stonewalls, and dense vegetation. In the vast majority of situations, it’s best to leave the snake alone. In rare cases, you may want to take action.

  • If the snake is located in an inconvenient spot, stomp on the ground in the vicinity of the snake. The vibration will often cause it to move away.
  • You can discourage snakes from sunning on steps or walks by covering those areas with plastic doormats that have a false grass texture.
  • Snakes occasionally enter homes in search of insects or rodents, or a place to warm up or cool off. Try to confine the snake to one room. If there is an exterior door, open it and allow the snake to find its way out. If not, gently sweep the snake into a cardboard box, and release it outdoors.

Snakes and the Law

The Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife protects all reptiles found in the state against sale and over-collection. Also, under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to kill, harass, or possess any of the following: the northern copperhead, the timber rattlesnake, the black rat snake, and the eastern worm snake.

Even though the law allows schools and individuals to possess two snakes of each common species, we suggest that after studying the snake for a day or two, the snake be put back where it was found.

Non-native snakes should never be released into the wild, as most cannot survive in our climate and their presence can be detrimental to native species. Visit the website of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for regulations.