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Surprised by a Black Snake

June 14, 2010


For the first six years of my life our family lived in a four-room house on Kentucky Avenue in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In the kitchen, a two-eyed laundry heater stoked with firewood provided heat. Smoke was vented through a stovepipe. The heater, our source of hot water, provided warmth for our home and served as a cooking surface.

Early one morning when I was five years old, I heard my mother calling my name with distress in her voice. She was cooking breakfast when she discovered a large black snake coiled behind the heater. The slinky critter had found a warm place to spend the night.

My mother gave me instructions. “Go out the front door. Come around to the back and hold the door open for me!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

My mother, pregnant with her fourth child, herded the snake out of her kitchen with a straw broom. The shiny black serpent wiggled past me. His presence in the house was most unwelcomed. My admiration for my mother’s ingenuity and my respect for black snakes increased.    

The southeastern United States is home to at least 45 species of snakes. Only six of those are poisonous.

Snakes are often killed by humans as a result of misinformation, or misidentification. How often have I heard, “The only good snake is a dead snake?”

In our area, many people think that every snake is a copperhead.

Among black snakes, there are several species, including the Ring-necked Snake, the Pine Snake, the Eastern Indigo Snake, and the Southern Black Racer. The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is sometimes black. The venomous Cottonmouth Moccasin is usually black but lives only below the fall line in South Carolina.

The Black Rat Snake, also called pilot snake, is the most common snake in the Southeast. It is also the largest snake in our area, sometimes reaching 8 feet in length. The chin and belly are mostly white.

Black Rat Snakes are found in forests, fields, marshes, and farmland. They are skillful climbers. They can ascend the trunk of large trees, and climb into the rafters of barns. They swim quite well.

I was fishing with a group of Cub Scouts near Burrell’s Ford on the Chattooga River. I noticed a humongous granddaddy black snake slither down the opposite bank of the river, the Georgia side. He proceeded to swim through the swift current straight toward the covey of young boys.

In an attempt to prevent widespread panic, I meet the long snake on the South Carolina side, quickly grabbing him behind the head. The large constrictor threw three coils around my arm. His strength was impressive. 

The Cubs shouted, “Dr. Kirk, what are going to do with him?”

“Can I hold him?”

“Can I take him home with me?”

I retreated to a pine tree to release the powerful snake. Just as I let him go, he whipped his head around, giving me a hard bite on my right thumb. Having declared his displeasure with me, he scaled the tree in no time flat. I washed my bleeding thumb in alcohol, explaining to the boys that we had invaded the snake’s territory    

In the spring and fall, black rat snakes are active during the day; in the summer they move around at night. When startled, they may freeze and wrinkle themselves into a series of kinks. If they feel further threatened, they may flee quickly or vibrate their tails in dead leaves, a form of mimicry, making a sound like a rattlesnake. They produce a foul-smelling musk odor which they release onto a predator.

This species is a constrictor, coiling around its prey and tightening its grip until the victim suffocates. Then the predator swallows its meal whole. True to its name, black rat snakes consume mice and rats. They will also hunt other snakes as well as chipmunks, squirrels, bats, birds, and bird eggs.

My mother apparently had radar for black snakes. The ten people in our family were enjoying a fine dinner together one Sunday after church. Mama saw something amiss through the screen door. “I think there is a snake going up the wall in the garage,” she said.

Sure enough, there was a hungry black snake making its way to a wren’s nest in the rafters. My dad quickly dispatched the intruder to the field across the fence.

Though they have few natural foes, I have witnessed a full-grown black snake dangling helplessly from the clenched talons of a red-tailed hawk. Humans are their most common enemies. In addition to being slain by frightened people, they are frequent road kill victims.

Black snakes are beneficial to humans because they prey on rodents. Several years ago, I released a black snake into my barn for that very reason. I haven’t seen him since.

A man offered to build a tool shed for his brother-in-law. The property owner had seen a large black snake on his land. He cautioned, “If you see a black snake, leave him alone. Black snakes are our friends.”

Later that day the owner returned to see how the project was progressing. He was aghast to see a large black snake dead, draped over a fence. He chided his brother-in-law. “I told you not to kill a black snake. Those are our friends.”

“When I sit down to eat my lunch, I don’t appreciate being surprised by your friend.”

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2010

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