Is It a Rat Snake, Chicken Snake, or a Copperhead?
In my area of Texas, we have both rat snakes (also called chicken snakes) and copperheads. There are times when it is hard to tell: Is it a rat snake or a copperhead?
Living in balance with nature can offer some challenges. Here, we try not to kill snakes unless they are a threat to us or our livestock. Snakes are a great help in dealing with rats and mice, and they've provided the material for many of our homeschool lessons!
Often people kill snakes for no real reason except ignorance and fear. This isn't good because snakes provide a valuable service to the homesteader by keeping small rodents in check. A large snake lives under our barn, and I have not seen a mouse there in awhile. We do try to discourage snakes around the chicken coop because the snakes love those fresh eggs as much as we do. If we go for a few days without seeing an egg, then we know we have a reptilian visitor.
It is startling to walk into the chicken coop and come face to face with a large rat snake, especially since they often look very much like a dangerous copperhead. How does one recognize which is which?
Differences Between Rat Snakes (AKA Chicken Snakes) and Copperheads
Less distinct markings
Distinct hour-glass markings
Bite lacks fang marks
Bite leaves fang marks
Grow four to six feet long
Grow two to three feet long
Cannot climb—if you see a snake hanging in the rafters, it is not a copperhead
Rat Snakes: Beneficial FriendsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Rat snakes go by many names. In our area, they are called Texas rat snakes; they are also called chicken snakes because they are often found near chicken coops. Normally the rat snake will be dining on the rats and mice that thrive on the grain that is so plentiful in the chicken yard, but sometimes they will eat the eggs as well.
These snakes are proficient climbers. One afternoon I went into the chicken coop, intent on cleaning the nesting boxes, and came literally face to face with a large adult rat snake hanging from the low rafters of our small hen house. I backed smoothly away, hoping that the snake would not get startled and bite me.
Rat snakes are not poisonous. They will bite when they feel threatened, and the bite looks very much like a human bite on the skin. It lacks the two distinct fang marks of a poisonous snake. While the bite hurts, it is not going to make you sick. Just wash the area carefully with soap and water and watch for signs of infection as you would with any other wound.
Texas rat snakes are one of the largest snakes found in my area, often reaching lengths over six feet. The background color of an adult will range from yellow to orange to brown, and it has tan or brown blotches on it, which makes it look similar to a copperhead. However, the markings are not in distinct hourglass shapes like those of the copperhead.
The rat snake will sometimes even rattle its tail, emulating a rattlesnake. This similarity is good for the snake in some ways because predators naturally shy away from it. However, the similarity harms the snake in populated areas, where people often don't stop to analyze which of the two it is before killing it.
A rat snake has round pupils, unlike the elliptical "cat's eye" pupils of the copperhead. Its head is oval, and the colors are slightly duller.
Copperhead Snake, Dangerous FoeClick thumbnail to view full-size
There are several subspecies of copperheads, but the one most easily confused with the beneficial rat snake is the southern copperhead.
These snakes live in partially wooded areas near sources of water, such as a stock tank or creek. You will most likely encounter them under debris, decaying leaves, and rotting stumps. On the homestead, watch out for them if you are dealing with brush piles or woodpiles.
The southern copperhead grows to a length of about 36 inches. Its color is a pinkish tan background with darker hourglass blotches across its back. It is nocturnal in the heat of summer but becomes more active in the daytime as the temperatures cool during the autumn months. This snake is one of the most abundant poisonous snakes in my area of North Texas. There have been few deaths reported from the bite of a southern copperhead, but if you are bitten, it is important to seek medical care immediately. The bite mark will have two punctures from the fangs—this is how you can identify the bite as venomous.
Like rat snakes, copperheads eat rats, mice, and other small rodents. These benefits notwithstanding, the danger of the copperhead's bite makes it important to me to keep the species away from the areas where my children play. If possible, we catch the snakes and relocate them. However, we will kill them if need be. Keeping areas of brush and trash away from the house and yard will help discourage these snakes. Seal up openings in foundations and around pipes, so that snakes (of any kind) cannot get into the house.
A copperhead will not climb like a rat snake will, so this is another way to tell the difference between the two. If you see a snake above your head, it won't be a copperhead.
Not that you will hang around to test the theory, right?
How to Discourage Snakes from Your Yard
The other day, I was writing, and my youngest children came running in to tell me there was a snake coiled by the goat barn. I sent my 15-year-old out to investigate.
He was sure it was an adult copperhead and asked for permission to kill it. I really don't like killing anything, so I went out to have a look myself. I looked at it, but thought it was a Rat Snake and told him to let it go. I took some pictures to use for our nature notebooks. My son let me know he thought I was nuts but did as I asked.
When I loaded the pictures on the computer (the ones above), I immediately saw that he had been correct in his identification, and I had been too interested in getting back to my writing! I had to apologize and say those words dreaded by parents everywhere: "Son, I was wrong, and you were right. I am sorry."
The best way to discourage snakes from venturing close to your home is to get rid of their preferred shelters and food as much as possible. Store wood at least 18 inches off the ground. Keep the rodent population down by use of traps.
Since those precautions are not a guarantee that a copperhead won't venture into your yard, it is important to teach your children to be cautious around any snake they see. They should back away from it smoothly and as quickly as they can. Use gloves and boots when working with brush and woodpiles, and be alert for movement. Snakes will normally avoid human contact if they can, but you might come across one in a bad mood.
Apparently marigolds are natural deterrents for snakes, so you might think about planting them in areas that you would like the snakes to stay away from.
Try to be selective in which snakes you kill. By allowing snakes to share your environment, you can benefit from the natural pest control they provide.
Can You Identify a Copperhead?
Identify Poisonous Snakes Quickly
An easy to use guide to dangerous snakes, bugs, and plants a for easy identification of anything whether you are hiking or at home.
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