Snakes are elongate legless carnivorous reptiles of the order Serpentes. Found all over the world, except in the arctic, they play an important role in both the ecosystems and cultures of every region they occupy.
Snakes evolved from Lizards, and share many traits with them. Snakes and lizards are cold-blooded and have scaly skin, flattened diamond-shape heads, beady eyes, long sensory tongues, and a taste for live prey. While some lizards are content with a vegetarian snack, all 2,900+ species of snakes found throughout the world are carnivorous. The snake’s ability to creep silently while climbing trees, squeezing through blades of grass, or burrowing in dirt or sand make it an excellent hunter and ambush predator. They have evolved a lightning-fast strike and fangs designed to lock prey into their jaws. Some snakes take on prey that they can easily handle: smaller rodents, birds, eggs — nothing difficult. Others go for larger prey, a meal that will last a while. A snake can devour prey much larger than its head or body may seem to be able to handle. Their highly mobile jaw bones can unlock, twist and turn to open wide and manipulate their meals. Snakes can devour meals that will take weeks to digest.
Although they all have the slender legless bodies, their colors and sizes can vary greatly. Juvenile snakes can be tiny — fitting comfortably coiled on a quarter, or they can be larger than humans, like the notorious Anaconda. Although most snakes have earthy skin colors, many have taken on bright and bold patterns. Many mimic other, more dangerous snakes as a method of defense. A few species look and behave just like a tree branch in order to hide from predators and prey. Despite their diverse appearance, snakes can be very difficult to identify properly. Like humans with skin and hair color, snakes of the same species can have skin of varying colors, stripes and spots. It’ll usually take closer examination to differentiate some common species. Unfortunately most people aren’t willing to get in for a closer look.
The majority of snakes spend their time on the ground, in grass, rocks, dirt and sand, but there are plenty of arboreal (tree-dwelling) snakes too. Aquatic snakes, commonly referred to as “serpents,” spend a lot of their time hunting in the water, but can also traverse land if need be. Many terrestrial snakes can swim and often do so to hunt or evade predators.
Snakes play an important role in pest control. Their hearty appetite and natural talent for capturing small animals helps keep rodent populations down. In urban areas, snakes can help keep rat populations under control.
Snakes in New York
While we have only 16 native snake species in New York State, the pet trade throws a wrench or two into indentifying them. Exotic snakes sometimes make their way from the home terrarium into the wild. The vemonous Coral Snake looks very similar to our native and harmless Milk Snake. Boa Constrictors of all sorts, a very popular group of snake pet, are not native to our area, yet seem to find their way into our lawns and sheds every once in a while. Although finding an escaped exotic snake in the wild is rare, it is something one must keep in mind when identifying a snake.
In New York, common Garter Snakes will account for the majority of encounters. These harmless snakes, tend to vary in color and color markings, but are easy to identify if one gets used to seeing them. Because of their loss of habitat, many snakes take up residence in our yards, sheds and homes. Some just die out. We have two endangered species of snake in New York: Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake and the Queen Snake, and are only found in small isolated populations. The Timber Rattlesnake, more common, but with populations dwindling, is considered a threatened species.
Poisonous (Venomous) Snakes
We have many biting snakes in New York, and some that, while venomous, have little effect on the human body. There are three poisonous snakes here that pose a danger to humans. Luckily they are rare, timid around humans, and strike only when provoked. Snake bites, even from non-venomous species, can pose a health threat if not treated properly. Infection and parasites can result from a snakebite. All snakes, even the small ones, should be handled with caution.
If you are bitten by a snake:
Do what you can to get out of there or prevent a second strike.
Take note of the snake’s size, color, patterns, distinguishing marks. Look for the pupils. Vertical pupils usually mean a venomous snake.
Remove constricting items (rings, jewelry, watches). Do not apply a tourniquet to any limbs.
Use the limb as little as possible.
Snake venom acts quickly. Stop what you are doing and pay attention to your body and how it is reacting.
Do not attempt to “suck out the poison.”
At any indication that the snake was venomous, call EMS (911), or get someone to take you to a doctor or hospital.
No one should take any medical advice from non-trained personnel. There is a lot of false information out there.
If no immediate medical attention is needed (the snake is not venomous), clean the wound, apply a topical antibiotic and dress if needed. A tetanus booster is highly recommended.
See a doctor if you are unsure. It is better to be safe than sorry.
We ask that you do not kill or harm a snake because you think it is poisonous or harmful. Identify it first. Call pest control if necessary. Snake repellent can help keep snakes off your property.
Snake Books and Field Guides
New York State Snake Species Identification Guide
Western Black Rat Snake
AKA: Pilot snake; Black snake; Black rat snake
Identifying characteristics: Large with black body, white chin and light underbelly. Similar to the Northern Black Racer.
Size: Average adult length of 4-6 feet, with records of some reaching 8 feet. The largest snake in North America.
Habitat: Prefers wooded areas (are considered good climbers) but can be found in rocky areas as well as grassland.
Food: Carnivorous constrictor. Feeds primarily on small birds, eggs and mammals with preference to rodents. Known to consume nearly anything placed in front of it.
Venom: Not poisonous/venomous, but has a painful bite. Handle with caution.
Other Info.: Lays eggs. When confronted by humans or predators, tends to freeze as is, with body crinkled or coiled.
Scattered across the Finger Lakes and eastern NY
Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
AKA: Garter snake; Garter; Brown garter; Green garter
Identifying characteristics: Brown checkerboard-like pattern along the back, usually with a pattern of yellow or off-white stripes running the length of the body. The color varies depending on age and season and the stripes may not be well defined in some specimens. The Eastern Ribbon Snake is a type of garter, but much slimmer, with brighter, more defined yellow stripes and a long slender tail. Most snake encounters in NY state will be with a Common Garter.
Size: Average adult length of 3 to 5 feet with narrow girth.
Habitat: Forests, grass, wetlands, ponds, and other damp areas. Semi-aquatic, often found near water.
Venom: Not poisonous/venomous, but may cause a rash or swelling around the bite area in humans.
Other Info.: May secrete a foul smelling substance when handled. Gives birth to live offspring.
Found all over NY and surrounding states.
Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)
AKA: Puff snake; Spreading viper; Blow viper
Identifying characteristics: Varies in color. Brown, dark grey, tan, reddish, yellow with black blotches running down its back. Blotches may be faint. Stout body shape, thick neck and upturned snout. Although it may look similar to some classically venomous snakes, this is just a form of mimicry.
Size: Average adult length of 2 to 3 feet.
Habitat: Prefers sandy soils, open woodland, rocky areas.
Venom: Not considered poisonous to humans, but has a painful bite. Handle with caution.
Other Info.: Lays eggs. When confronted by humans or predators, will “hood” its neck, inflate its body and strike with its mouth closed. If this doesn’t deter, it will roll over and play dead, releasing a foul smell and exhibiting a relaxed mouth and protruding tongue.
Small pockets in Eastern NY
Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus c. catenatus)
AKA: Swamp rattler; Gray rattlesnake
Identifying characteristics: Stout body with broad head. Brownish-grey with a row of hourglass-shaped dark spots along its back and 3 rows of smaller spots on its sides. Some adults may be completely black. The scales are keeled. A heat-sensing organ or pit (“pit viper”) can be found on each side of the head between the eye and nostril. A small rattle is located on the tip of the tail. Vertical pupils.
Size: 1-3 feet in length. The smallest of three venomous snakes in the state.
Habitat: Prefers forested bogs, swamps, wet fields and other damp areas. There are only 2 known populations in NY state. Bergen Swamp near Rochester and the Oneida Lake swampland east of Syracuse.
Food: Carnivorous, venomous. Small mammals and occasionally birds, frogs and even other snakes.
Temperament: Defensive and dangerous.
Venom:Poisonous to humans. Dangerous. Venom causes internal bleeding and severe illness, but rarely death. Do not approach. Do not handle.
Other Info.: Gives birth to live young. When confronted by humans or predators will rattle tail and if rattling does not deter, will strike.
Only two populations across NY, but found in neighboring states.
Status: Endangered in NY
due to diminishing habitat
Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis t. triangulum)
Identifying characteristics: Slender snake with grey to tan color body, broken by large blotches of dark brown (or reddish-brown) along the back. The blotches are outlined in black. Although the pattern may give the appearance of lighter-colored rings around the snake, from the side are most definitely blotches. The color patterns well-defined. Slender head. Belly has a black and white checkerboard pattern.
Size: Average 2-3 feet in length.
Habitat: Forests, fields, marshes, farmland and suburbs with good cover. Usually found under objects.
Food: Carnivorous constrictor. Small animals (mammals, birds, eggs amphibians, invertebrates), but mostly rodents.
Temperament: Docile, but defensive.
Venom: Not poisonous, but resembles the venomous Coral Snake, which is not native to New York, but are kept as pets. Coral snakes have rings rather than blotches.
Other Info.: They are nocturnal hunters. Lays eggs. When threatened, may vibrate tail repeatedly and strike but bite barely breaks skin.
Found all over NY and surrounding states.
Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis s. sauritus)
Identifying characteristics: Very slender with reddish/brown body and 3 dominant yellow stripes separated by 2 brown checkerboard stripes running the length of the body. The Eastern Ribbon Snake is a type of Garter Snake, but much slimmer, with brighter, more defined yellow stripes and a long slender tail.
Size: Average adult length of 2-3 feet.
Habitat: Wetlands and the edges of ponds and streams.
Food: Carnivorous. Amphibians, especially frogs. Some small fish. Unlike Garter snakes, do not eat earthworms.
Venom: Not poisonous.
Other Info.: Gives birth to live young. Excellent swimmer. Secretes a foul smelling substance when handled.
Sparsely distributed across NY state.
Northern Black Racer (Coluber c. constrictor)
AKA: Racer constrictor; Coluber constrictor
Identifying characteristics: Large and slender with shiny black smooth scales, white chin and grey belly. Juveniles have patterned backs. Similar to the Black Rat Snake, but smaller in diameter and has grey underbelly (much darker than the Rat Snake’s).
Size: Average adult length 4-6 feet. Young are roughly a foot long.
Habitat: Bushy areas, swamps, rocky hillsides and meadows.
Other Info.: Will slither away quickly when confronted, but if cornered will coil, shake its tail and strike.
Sparsely distributed in two regions in NY and common in southern neighboring states.
Northern Brown Snake (Storeria d. dekayi)
AKA: Dekayi Snake
Identifying characteristics: Small snake with brown/grey back . The middle of the back has a long, light-colored stripe bordered by black spots. Has dark downward stripe on each side of the head. Unmarked belly may be yellow, pink or cream. Juveniles have a yellowish collar.
Size: Average adult length of 13-16 inches.
Habitat: Wetlands, woods, ponds, streams, lakes and open fields. Often found in suburban yards.
Food: Carnivorous. Snails, slugs, earthworms, insects and small fish.
Venom: Not poisonous; does not bite larger animals.
Other Info.: Gives birth to live young. Are excellent swimmers. Secretes a foul smelling substance when handled. Bears live young. Can swim quite well.
Sparsely distributed across the Finger Lakes and eastern NY
Identifying characteristics: A generally small pit viper with copper colored, diamond-shaped head. The body is patterned with a striking greenish/reddish/brown pattern that looks like dark hourglass blotches. Pupils are vertical. A heat-sensing organ or pit (pit viper) can be found on each side of the head between the eye and nostril. Vertical pupils.
Size: 1-2 feet in length
Habitat: Prefer areas closer to water, hillsides, arid, mountainous regions. Places with lots of debris. The copperhead’s coloring gives it great camouflage in areas with lots of dead leaves and forest debris.
Venom:Poisonous, but the least potent venom of pit vipers and not enough to kill a healthy adult.
Other Info.: Gives birth to live young. When confronted will hiss and strike.
Found within the Hudson Valley region down state. Plentiful further south.
Northern Redbelly Snake (Storeria o. occipitomaculata)
Identifying characteristics: Small, slender snakes with brown or grey backs and a red/orange belly. The back has a long light-colored stripe, bordered by darker stripes. At the rear of the head and behind the eye are three small lightly-colored spots.
Size: Average adult length of 7-10 inches long.
Habitat: Forests, fields and bogs, often near water. Often found under objects, where they hide from predators.
Food: Carnivorous. Primarily slugs, worms and insect larvae.
Venom: Not poisonous and does not bite larger animals.
Other Info.: Gives birth to live young. Secretes a mild musk when handled.
Identifying characteristics: Uniform in color, dark bluish/black with a slim band of orange or yellow around the neck and black or grey head. The underbelly is usually orange or yellow.
Size: Average adult length of 13 inches.
Habitat: Prefers damp wooded or rocky areas near water.
Food: Carnivorous. Primarily earthworms, beetles, salamanders, frogs, and small snakes.
Venom: Not poisonous.
Other Info.: Lays eggs. When confronted by humans or predators, tends to freeze as is or coil up and freeze. Secretes a fowl-smelling musk when handled. Nocturnal hunter.
Sparsely distributed across NY
Northern Water Snake (Nerodia s. sipedon)
Identifying characteristics: Can be grey or light brown with black or dark red blotches across its back. Botches are thicker than the lighter spaces between them. The blotches are are not well-defined and some older snakes may appear as a solid color.
Size: Average adult length of 3 feet.
Habitat: Grassy or wooded shorelines of lakes, ponds or streams. Needs water for feeding hunting.
Other Info.: Gives birth to live young. When confronted will either slither away or flatten out and strike repeatedly.
Distributed across NY
Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata)
Identifying characteristics: The queen snake is olive to grey to dark brown in color with cream or yellow stripes running down its sides, adjacent to its light-colored belly. It also has dark stripes running the length of its belly.
Size: Average adult length of 1.5 feet.
Habitat: Near clean freshwater streams. Usually found under rocks and logs. Only a few known populations exist in western NY. Bergen Swamp near Rochester and near Aurora, east of Buffalo.
Food: Carnivorous. Primarily crayfish (usually newly-molted) and occasionally amphibians and snails found within its feeding area.
Temperament: Generally docile.
Venom: Not poisonous.
Other Info.: This snake carries its eggs within its body and gives birth to live young. Its primary prey, the crayfish, is very sensitive to pollutants, threatening this rare (in NY) species’ sustainability.
Few populations in western NY. Common in neighboring states.
Status:Endangered in NY
due to diminishing habitat and water quality.
Shorthead Garter Snake
Identifying characteristics: Light grey or brown body with a central light yellow/green stripe running down the center of the back gradually fading as it approaches the tail. Smaller head than other garter snakes.
Size: Average adult length of 3 to 4 feet.
Habitat: Fields, meadows and forest edges. Often in areas close to water.
Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis / Liochlorophis vernalis)
AKA: Grass Snake.
Identifying characteristics: Small, smooth leaf-green with whitish/yellow underbelly. Juveniles are usually olive or grey. Some adults may retain the juvenile color.
Size: Average adult length of 12-20 inches
Habitat: Grassy fields, wetlands, rolling hills. Anywhere green where they can take advantage of their natural camouflage.
Food: Carnivorous. Insects and spiders.
Venom: Not poisonous.
Other Info.: Lays eggs. They are common, but diminishing as their insect diet makes them vulnerable to pesticides.
Distributed across NY
Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
AKA: Banded Rattlesnake, Rattlesnake, American Viper
Identifying characteristics: Large and stocky, with 2 general color schemes. Yellow, light brown/grey with dark color bands. Or grey with black banding. Broad diamond shaped head. Ridged scales give a rough appearance. A heat-sensing organ or pit (pit viper) can be found on each side of the head between the eye and nostril. Rattling tail. Vertical pupils.
Size: Average adult length of 3-4.5 feet.
Habitat: Deciduous forests and rocky terrain.
Food: Carnivorous. Primarily small mammals but may also include birds, frogs and other snakes.
Temperament: Defensive and dangerous.
Venom:Highly poisonous and extremely dangerous.
Other Info.: When confronted by humans or predators will rattle tail and strike if provocation continues.
Found in the lower Hudson Valley, eastern and southern Adirondacks and parts of central NY. Threatened in many other states.
Status:Threatened in NY due to loss of habitat and indiscriminant killing.
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