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Maybe the Best “Mousers” in the World?
By Bill Hoagland
Last week, I found a black snake in Annie’s flower garden. In fact, I nearly stepped on him. I told Annie about him but not for the reason you probably are thinking. Annie is not afraid of snakes at all; in fact, if she sees a black snake on the roadway while driving her truck, she will sometimes stop the truck, try to catch the snake, put him in the bed of the truck and take him to the barn to help catch mice. And she will most likely try to catch this one in her garden if he shows up again and put him to work. The last black snake we had at the barn—a female named “Sally”—was given to Annie last year by a herpetologist and once released in the barn, “Sally” seemed to enjoy quietly going about her business. One horse was a bit spooked by “Sally” but everyone else was cool with her presence.
Seeing the snake last week got me curious about black snakes so with a little research, I learned some things that I did not know. First of all, the scientific name for the black snake found here in the Midwest is “Pantherophis Alleghaniensis,” which translates to “black panther snake of the Allegheny Mountains.” The common name, however, is “black rat snake” or simply “black snake.” Black snakes are not venomous; instead, they catch and kill their prey (such as mice, chipmunks, rats and birds) by constriction. Despite not being venomous, when threatened, the black snake will coil, flatten its head to look like a pit viper and vigorously shake its tail similar to the tactics of a rattlesnake. I have seen this first-hand and it can be a believable Hollywood level performance.
I was also surprised to learn that black snakes are remarkable climbers and have the ability to scale a vertical tree, rock wall or even vinyl siding on a house with ease. That’s because they have belly plates or overlapping scales on their bellies that act like spikes to help them climb. In fact, they are frequently found in trees rather than on the ground. Although an adult black snake is for the most part black on top with a few speckles here and there, the belly is a white or gray color; on the other hand, an immature black snake has a colorful pattern on the top part of its body similar to that of a copperhead; unfortunately, young black snakes are often mistaken for a copperhead and are killed unnecessarily for that reason.
There is some evidence that a black snake can, with time, recognize certain humans and become either docile or temperamental, depending on who it is that is attempting to handle them. Contrary to folklore, black snakes do not routinely kill copperheads or other venomous snakes. In fact, we once found a black snake and a rattlesnake under the same bale of hay in an old barn and they seemed to be getting along just fine. In the winter, black snakes, copperheads and rattlesnakes will hibernate in the same den so they apparently believe in “peaceful co-existence,” a term we have not heard since the end of the Cold War. Maybe they won’t eat the copperheads, but they definitely will clean out the rodents. They are probably the best “mousers” in the world because they don’t need distemper shots, they don’t require any cat food or kitty litter and best of all, they don’t complain.
So if you see a black snake crossing the road, give him a brake.
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.