Oct03

Chickens, Chores and Rat Snakes

Author // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

What could be taking Marshall so long, I thought? It had been a good twenty minutes since I had sent my son to gather eggs from the chicken house. As Ben (my younger son) and I set out across the yard to see what the holdup was, we noticed Marshall come out of the coop wrestling a very large snake. Now I realize some parents might have needed therapy after such a traumatic event, but I was positively thrilled.

ratsnake1My boys and I had removed many non-venomous snakes from the chicken pen together and spent hours capturing snakes in the field, but this was Marshall's first solo capture. He knew the rat snake he extracted from the shed was a non venomous species but he also knew it was capable of biting pretty hard. I don't want to get all sentimental or anything, but it looked as though my baby was really growing up. Marshall's snake had the telltale signs of ingested chicken eggs running the length of its swollen body. As Marshall struggled with his catch, we watched in fascination as the large snake regurgitated chicken eggs one-by-one on to the ground in front of us. Some of the eggs were intact and others broken and runny. I guess some people might have been repulsed at the scene but to us this was quality father son bonding.

The rat snake is one of the biggest snakes in Southeast with some individuals exceeding seven feet in length. Although they reach impressive sizes, these snakes pose no serious threat to people. They vary in color and pattern throughout their range. Adults may be dark grey or black with only traces of a lighter pattern (inland) or yellowish and heavily striped (like we have on the coast).

Rat snakes are powerful constrictors, suffocating rats, birds, squirrels, and even young rabbits and swallowing them whole. They are also particularly fond of bird eggs. Since they are adept climbers they often venture up the sides of barns and houses and into the tree canopy. Rat snakes are at home in wetlands and can be occasionally be seen swimming on ponds, rivers and even in the salt marsh.

Baby rat snakes are about 10 inches long and boldly patterned at hatching, but they lose those markings over the next several years as they mature. Individuals have been known to live more than 25 years in captivity. Although they are large, look a bit foreboding and steal an occasional egg from the Mills chicken coop, rat snakes are important members of the ecosystem. They help control populations of mice, rats, and squirrels and on a slow summer day in the country, what could be better than watching a rat snake throw up chicken eggs on the front lawn

About the Author

Tony

Tony

Tony has been working in the field of environmental education for over two decades with emphasis on southeastern animals and plants. During his college years and after graduating from Georgia Southern University in 1985, he worked in a variety of positions as a naturalist in state and national parks and nature centers. Tony also worked for twenty years as the outreach program coordinator for the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. His job included development and implementation of educational programs promoting ecological research to schools and the general public.

Tony now works as the education director for the LowCountry institute. His duties include co-teaching the Lowcountry Master Naturalist Program, producing and conducting educational programs for local schools, field trips and teacher workshops. He has written numerous newspaper columns and articles on local plants and animals for the popular media and co-wrote the book “Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast” (UGA press June 2009). Although Tony spends a major portion of his time teaching and writing, he continues his extensive field study with plants and animals of the southeast. Past research trips have taken him on excursions into the jungles of Mexico and Costa Rica to conduct studies on snakes and lizards and into the Everglades of South Florida to collect introduced pythons and endangered crocodiles.