nonvenomous snakes, head shot
Photo by David Clode
Of the 130 different species of snakes in North America, the vast majority are nonvenomous.

Contrary to the old saying, the only good snake is not a dead snake. There are more than 130 species of snakes in the U.S., and less than one in six is venomous. Many nonvenomous snakes do so much good that we do ourselves a disservice by getting rid of them, especially those that eat pests no one wants around.

Four kinds of large nonvenomous snakes are found from coast to coast: kingsnakes, coachwhips, racers, and a complex of species known by different names. They are known as pinesnakes in the East, bullsnakes in Texas and the Midwest, and gopher snakes on the West Coast.

Ratsnakes are also included even though they aren’t found nationwide, because they live around people and often enter houses.


All kingsnakes are shiny and smooth-scaled, but color patterns vary among regions. The large eastern kingsnakes are black with yellow rings. From southern Alabama to Texas, speckled kingsnakes are black with a yellow spot on each scale. California kingsnakes have light-colored rings encircling the black body or a light stripe down the back. Kingsnakes are well-named, because among snakes they are the champions. They are immune to the venom of pit vipers and can consume them in face-to-face encounters. For their size, they are as powerful as other constrictors, a food capturing technique they use with lizards, mice, rats, and other snakes.


Coachwhip, fast, biege snake
Coachwhips are not constrictors but because of their fast speed can pursue, catch, and eat rodents.

With their classic tail that looks like a braided whip, coachwhips vary in color depending on the region. They have different proportions of black, tan and cream.  On the eastern forms, the front half of the body is black and the back half is cream-colored. These snakes don’t constrict their prey. They manage to capture rodents with their fast speed, rapid strikes and by trapping them in burrows.


Racer snake, black
The racer snake has a very diverse diet, from insects to birds.

These are slender snakes stream-lined for speed. They are usually a solid color that can be black, bluish-silver, greenish, or other colors, depending on the location. They have more diverse diets than most other snakes. It includes insects, lizards, snakes, birds, rodents, and amphibians. Like coachwhips, they are not constrictors. But a mouse or small rat has little chance when spotted by one of these fast-moving hunters.

Pine Snakes, Bullsnakes and Gopher Snakes

gopher snake, pests, brown
A complex species of snakes with various names around the country, the gopher snake is a great pest hunter

These big snakes come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Many have markings and patterns that are similar to rattlesnakes. All three get enormous and are often mistaken for rattlesnakes. The tail vibrating and hissing when threatened sounds like a rattler. No rat is too big for one of these constrictors when full grown.


ratsnakes, light gray, dark blotches
Among the most commonly misidentified snakes in the eastern United States are baby ratsnakes, which are light gray with dark blotches, although adults can be black, dark gray, or yellow.

The premier rodent eaters, ratsnakes live in a wide variety of habitats from coastal plains to interior highlands. Gray ratsnakes are dark to light gray with darker gray or brown blotches. Black ratsnakes are most common further north and are black on top with touches of white between some of the scales. Southern yellow ratsnakes are yellow, orange or greenish with four dark stripes. All juveniles resemble the gray ratsnake. In the Midwest, they are called fox snakes, while they’re called corn snakes in the Southeast. These proficient climbers can scale a brick wall or go straight up an oak or pine tree. All will eat birds and eggs but will never turn down a meal of rodents when given the chance.

Ratsnakes are the most common snake to enter houses in search of prey—rats, mice, and flying squirrels have all been documented as its victims.

Nonvenomous Snakes

Snakes eat hundreds of thousands of rats, mice, voles, and moles. Some snakes, such as DeKay’s brown snake, even specialize on garden pests such as slugs. A six-foot ratsnake or coachwhip can easily consume a half-dozen adult mice in a single meal and be ready to eat again within a month. Consider the number of barns, feed lots, and crawl spaces across the land where rodents occur. A big, benign snake living under the barn is a far better option than rats eating what we or our livestock eat, or chewing on our electrical wiring.

This article is from the summer 2018 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at

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