Last week my wife informed me she had seen the first big black rat snake of the year stretched across the road in front of our house. "What are you going to do about it?" she asked/demanded.
I answered as I always do: "Nothing. I'm not about to kill a snake simply because it has the audacity to breathe the same air we do."
And then I launched into my standard "defense of snakes" lecture. Nonpoisonous snakes are harmless. They eat mice, rats and chipmunks. Having them near the house is a good thing. In fact, I place pieces of sheet metal and plywood lying strategically, but inconspicuously, on the edges of the yard as snake habitat. When I peek under this cover, I usually find at least one beautiful little ringneck snake, a juvenile rat snake or young milk snake.
Some people find this shocking. These are the people who kill every snake they find. "The only good snake is a dead snake," they say with authority. But those are the voices of ignorance.
Most snakes encountered in a backyard setting are harmless. Garter snakes (seldom longer than 36 inches) can be recognized by three longitudinal stripes that run the length of the body. Ringneck snakes (up to 20 inches) are charcoal gray with a gorgeous yellow or orange ring around its neck.
Smooth green snakes (up to 22 inches) are bright lime green. They blend in perfectly with lush vegetation, so they often fall victim to lawn mowers. In death, green snakes quickly turn blue as unstable yellow pigments break down, leaving only the more stable blue pigments behind.
Black rat (up to 7 feet long) and eastern milk snakes (up to 4 feet) are the most intimidating species that occur in backyards and the only ones whose bite might break the skin.