Rat snakes are one of the more commonly encountered snakes in our area. They truly do eat a lot of rodents and so this draws them towards human habitation searching for food. As a group they can grow quite large and for those of us who do a have a fear of snakes – we really have a fear of big snakes; so many of these animals, which actually do a good service for us, are killed. Someone told me that they once saw a large gray rat snake in their yard and I explained that you would actually prefer finding one in your yard or barn; this means your rodent problem is under control.
There are four different kinds of rat snakes found in Florida, two of those are found here. One is the Red Rat Snake (Elaphe gutta gutta) also known as the “Corn Snake”. Both names are used frequently and are good ones for this species. The coloration of this beautiful snake is a red/orange blotch/banded coloration on top (dorsal side) but a white/black checkered pattern on the bottom (ventral side) – the checkered pattern resembles Indian corn – hence the name “Corn Snake”. The red rat snake is found in all habitats and throughout the southeast United States. It reaches a length of 6 ft. and is one of two found in Escambia County. The other is the Gray Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleteta spiloides) also known as the oak snake. It gets its name from the gray blotched pattern of its body and the fact they often found in oak trees hunting squirrels and birds. True to its name however, it does hunt rats. It is most common in woodlands and wetlands, is found throughout the southeast. It can reach a length of 7 ft. The Yellow Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleteta quadriveittata) is also known as the “Chicken Snake”. This snake has yellow/olive lateral strips and a yellow belly. It is often found in chicken yards. It prefers the edge of woodland and wetland habitats but is only found in central Florida. It can reach a length of 7 ft. The fourth type of rat snake in Florida is the Everglades Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleteta rossalleni). As the name suggests this subspecies is found in the Florida Everglades.
Ashton (1981) and Gibbons (2005) both report that rat snakes are quite common in most of the southeastern United States and have a variety of color variations within this region. Rat snakes are more active during daylight hours and are excellent climbers; often found in trees and on the side of buildings. All four subspecies mentioned above tend to be aggressive when first approach. They will form an “S” shape and vibrate their tail in the leaves to make a “rattle” sound; they often produce a warning musk when approached. They do strike but tend to calm very quickly and can be easily handled from that point; making them a popular species for pets. They feed primarily on birds and rodents though yellow rat snakes will hunt chickens and corn snakes will hunt lizards and other snakes.
The primary issues these snakes have are with cats and dogs when they enter yards looking for prey. Yellow rat snakes often enter chicken yards which will more than likely draw the attention of an angry farmer, and the corn snake’s coloration often gets it confused with the venomous copperhead – which usually means the corn snake will be killed. These harmless snakes are actually useful in our community reducing the disease carrying rodent population. Those who encounter them should admire and allow them to do their job.