Rat snakes are good neighbors

The corn snake that lived in the science classroom at my daughter’s school crossed over to snake paradise a few weeks ago, and the teacher is in the market for a new snake. I had never thought a whole lot about corn snakes, but the kids really loved their snake, so I got interested.

It turns out that corn snakes are rat snakes. Corn snakes, or red rat snakes, are native to New Jersey, down through the southern states and into far East Texas. They are red, orange or yellow with red, redorange or red-brown blotches; and hence can be confused with Copperheads.

They are called corn snakes for one of two reasons, either it’s because they used to invade farmers’ corn cribs looking for rats or because their belly markings have a corn-on-the-cob pattern. Most rat snakes handle captivity well as they are all fairly docile. Corn snakes are the most recommended snakes for beginners, because they are the most docile of the bunch and only grow to a length of about six feet. They can live up to twenty-three years in captivity.

Nine species of rat snake live in the U.S., and each of these species can be broken into various sub-species. It gets a little confusing. Besides the Corn snake, five other rat snake species live in Texas–the Western, Trans-Pecos, Eastern, Baird’s and Great Plains. Rat snakes are non-venomous, but large adult snakes pack a wallop with their bite, so it does hurt when they get you. They come in all colors of the rainbow, except blue. The snakes average in length between two to seven feet long. They are also great climbers.

Breeding occurs from March through May, depending on the species. Once the female lays the eggs she takes a hike. Babies start hatching in the summer months and must fend for themselves. Rat snakes avoid confrontation. Most freeze when threatened. However, they will also coil like a rattlesnake and shake their tail. If that doesn’t work, they release a nasty-smelling musk. If that fails, the snake strikes.

The name says it all. Rat snakes hunt rats and other rodents. They also hunt lizards, bats, birds and eggs. They are constrictors. They are expert rodent hunters, using their sight and the Jacobsen’s organ inside their mouth to find their prey. They rival cats for keeping the population level of rodents to a minimum.

Our state has its own subspecies of the Eastern rat snake, called what else, but the Texas rat snake. It should come as no surprise that the Texas rat snake is the most aggressive of all rat snakes. They range in color from yellow/ tan with brown or olive blotches. Texas rat snakes are the only rat snake with a solid grey head. They can grow to seven feet in length. You may know the Texas rat snake as a “chicken snake.” And while they may be going into the chicken coop for the chickens and their eggs, more than likely they’re following the rodents.

Now, a plug for the Master Gardener class scheduled to start Jan. 12. I’m also a Master Gardener and I took this class two years ago. I learned a heck of a lot about gardening, and the Master Gardener Handbook we received is a wonderful reference. The Little River Basin Master Gardeners volunteer in Milam County, and have a demonstration garden in Cameron and a butterfly garden in Rockdale. Master Gardener Renee Sadler is very active with Junior Master Gardeners in several of the Milam County school districts.

Applications are available by calling the Texas AgriLife Extension Service at 254-697- 7046, or visiting the office at 100 East 1st St. in Cameron.

Gause-area resident Shawn Walton is a Texas Master Naturalist with the El Camino Real Chapter. Read more at

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2010-11-18 digital edition

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