Sunday, July 29, 2012

Texas Rat Snake

I received an email the other day from a friend asking me toidentify a snake that was discovered and unfortunately killed.  I knew immediately by its distinct dorsalblotched pattern and coloration that it was a Texas rat snake.  I had one of these powerful constrictors as apet when I was young.  My Dad had told meof a fellow he worked with who raised chickens and said he was having a timewith snakes getting into his coup and eating his chicks and the chicken’seggs.  This is where the name “chickensnake” originated.  At the time I wasintensely interested in snakes and asked if he could get his friend to try andcatch me one.  I didn’t think my Dad tookme seriously until one day he came home from work and got out of his truck witha pillow case in his hand.  “Here’s thatsnake you asked for” he said. When I peered down inside that willowy pillow case I wascompletely stunned.  I never thought Iwould get such a behemoth.  The snake was about five foot long and about as big around as my forearm, and madas hell.  It struck repeatedly each timeI even thought of trying to grab it.  Ikept this monster in a cage in a the bedroom I shared with my two brothers, andI can still remember my Mom creeping into our room with a flashlight in themiddle of the night making sure it was still confined.  To this day I still can’t believe she allowedus to keep that thing in the house. 

When confronted their temperament can be as subtle as asledgehammer, and more apt to stand their ground rather than flee.  They will coil up in a classic strikingposition, most times with its mouth ajar at the ready while hissingloudly.  It will also vibrate its tail againstthe ground litter or any other object, closely imitating the thrum of arattlesnake’s rattle in order to intensify the intimidation.  And believe me they will bite, most timeshitting then releasing, but they’ve been known to latch on and then pull backallowing their backward curving  teeth totear.  I know this from personalexperience having been bit by one.  Andlike most other snakes when handled, they emit foul, musky fecal matter,spreading this deterrent all over you hoping to foster its release.  

Here is a good descriptive video I found on YouTube:

Everynow and then you’ll come across one that acts the contrary, such as one Icaught in West Texas.  I was riding inthe back of a pickup down a rocky road on a friend’s hunting lease when Ispotted it all stretched out alongside the road’s edge.  

I jumped from the truck, walked right up to it and picked it up with no reaction on the snake’s part.  It didn't even try to “slime” me.

Not just restricted to wooded regions, this snake can alsobe found in residential areas. They are excellent mousers, feeding heavily on miceand rats, so in my opinion, it would be a blessing to have one of these in myyard, where it could roam freely.  I readwhere one herper had deliberately released a rat snake in his attic to “cleanup” a rat problem he was having.   

If you were to take a cross-section of its body it wouldlook like a loaf of bread, whereas most other snakes’ bodies are morecircular.  This odd shape allows it climbwith ease into trees, utilizing this flat area of scales on its belly to clingto the cracks between a tree’s bark. This climbing ability allows them to not only evade ground predators, but also to pillage the nests of birds and squirrels.  They've also been known to raid the nest boxes (that do not have predator guards) of bluebirds, purple martins, and tree swallows.

Here's a video that demonstrates this climbing ability:

The most interesting of all is its relationship with thered-cockaded woodpecker (listed as an endangered species), which the rat snakeis its chief predator.  Most woodpeckers bore their nest cavities in dead snags, but these nest solely in live longleaf pines due to their resin flow and there’s a reason for this.  Through years ofexperience and evolution this bird has developed a means of inhibiting thesesnakes from gaining access to their eggs and young.  It’s pretty ingenious.  They will scale off the bark below the bottom of theentrance to their nesting cavity, making it smooth, reducing “purchase points”(cracks in bark as mentioned above) for the snake’s scales to grasp, then tapholes, or “resin wells” in this bare area. The smoother trunk along with thesticky consistency of the resin flowing from the wells provides a barrier ofsorts which, most times, prevents the snake from gaining access to the nestthereby reducing their losses.  Thesewells are “worked” regularly to insure that the sap flow continues.  

To like snakes you must be a little quirky……a littlestrange.  At least that’s the vibe I getfrom those that spurn them.  The reasonthey are so despised is literally due to ignorance. These fears are based onwhat’s been seen in the movies, in folklore, and religion, where snakes aredepicted as evil entities out to get you.


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