A Rare Snake Sighting: The Northern Black Racer
Last week I was out walking the boundary line of our back pasture. I had our dog, Russell, with me, and we were along the edge of the field where brush and small saplings have sprouted in an area of about six feet or more between the bordering stone wall and the open pasture. Like all dogs, Russell likes to explore and has a nose for trouble, so to speak, and I take him with me in the back pasture so he can get some exercise for that nose of his.
About 20 feet ahead I noticed Russell had stopped at the edge of the field where a pair of robins were making a huge racket and flying in and out of the brush and saplings. I thought he might be what was upsetting the robins, so I grabbed his collar to urge him to keep moving. Then I saw the real reason the birds were upset. Russell was focused on the birds, but he missed the northern black racer snake slowly moving through the low thick brush with its eyes on the nest. The snake paid no attention to the distressed birds flying about. My first reaction was to move along and let nature be without intervention from the human landowner. However, I knew I could never tell this story to my wife if I didn’t at least try to scare the snake from its intended target. I stomped my feet and tossed a branch near the snake, and it quickly moved through the brush and into a crevice within the stone wall. I have not returned to check on the robin’s nest.
That was probably the third or fourth time I had seen the non-venomous northern black racer snake, and each time is certainly memorable. The large size of the animal and its deep black color make for a striking appearance. For those who have seen the black racer it will be no surprise that it is one of the largest snakes we have in our region. Here is some information about this amazing snake.
The “Audubon Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians” describes the northern black racer as one of several subspecies of the racer (Coluber constrictor) snake family. Despite the scientific name it is not a constrictor. It is a large snake that can grow from 34 inches to 77 inches. Other subspecies along with our region’s northern black are the buttermilk, tan, eastern yellow bellied, blue, brown-chinned, black-masked, western yellow-bellied, Mexican, Everglades and southern black. The ability to grow 77 inches — more than six feet in length — certainly makes it a memorable snake to encounter in its natural habitat.
Our racer snake is a slate black color with upper lip scales that are black with some white on the chin and brown eyes. The females are typically longer than the males but have a shorter tail, which has an indentation at the base. The range of the northern black racer is from Maine east to Ohio and south to South Carolina, north Georgia, north Alabama and northeast Mississippi.
Their breeding season in our region is April to May. By mid-June, the female northern black racer will lay an average of 18 eggs in a rotting tree stump or sawdust pile, below rocks or in a rodent hole. Occasionally the female racer will deposit her eggs in a communal nest. The eggs are elliptically shaped and under two-inches long and one-inch wide. They are pliable at first and then become hard and brittle. The young hatch in six to nine weeks, are eight inches to a foot long and mature in two to three years.
In our region the northern black racer is one of two large black snakes, with the other being the eastern rat snake. It is declining in our region due to habitat change, fragmentation and loss. It is an active daytime hunter (as Russell and I found out) and a fast-moving snake that hunts over an extensive home range.
Norther black racers prey on smaller species of snakes, toads, frogs, small birds and nestlings, chipmunks, mice, shrews and other small rodents. They will also eat insects and invertebrates such as butterfly and moth larvae. Immature black racers will eat mostly invertebrates, moving to larger prey as they get older. They pin their prey with their body, swallowing it whole.
The reduction of their preferred foraging and hunting habitat due to development has caused their declining numbers. They prefer open fields and transitional zones between forest and field for hunting – exactly what we have in our back pasture with brush and saplings between the open field and mature forest.
For more information on the northern black racer snake I suggest you check out the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Northern Black Racer Fact Sheet at:
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. It is filled with amazing animals, including more than a dozen species of snakes. The northern black racer is a magnificent animal. Unfortunately, it is one of several species of animals in our region in decline due to loss of its natural habitat.
I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy, and pass on this special place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.
Information on this column was gleaned from the Audubon Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, Amphibians and Reptiles in Connecticut by Michael W. Klemens, and the CT DEEP Fact Sheet on the Northern Black Racer Snake.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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