by Whit Gibbons

September 18, 2016

Q: You once wrote that snakes had babies in the fall, but I have encountered little snakes I assume were babies while gardening in my yard on several occasions in spring and early summer in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Are some snakes born that early in the year? One of them is a nondescript brown, and the other one is pretty with a shiny black body and yellow ring around its neck. All are less than a foot long.

A: Baby snakes first appear in late summer or early autumn. A few might have young in midsummer, but none characteristically have babies before then. Some snakes lay eggs whereas others are livebearers, but the seasonal timing of when babies first appear is the same for both. Two plausible reasons exist for why you might see small snakes in the spring.

First, you may be seeing snakes that were actually babies in the fall but did not find food before they went into winter dormancy. Hence, they would not have increased in size and would still be small snakes. With few exceptions, most U.S. snakes are a foot or less in length when first born or hatched. A baby racer or kingsnake, either of which can commonly be more than 4 feet long as an adult, could easily live from October to April without eating or growing, so they would still be small juveniles in spring.

But I suspect a different reason for why you are seeing small snakes in springtime in your yard. They are not baby snakes but simply species that never get large. For example, of the more than 60 kinds of snakes found in the eastern United States, a dozen or more seldom reach even 18 inches, their maximum possible length. Several never get much over a foot long when fully grown.

The most common small snake found in suburban and metropolitan areas is the brown snake, which is sometimes called DeKay's brown snake. The species is found in every eastern state and is one of the snakes most frequently encountered by people in their yards, city parks and other areas where humans live. They are also one of the most inoffensive snakes in the country. I have never heard of one biting a person. The largest one ever found was only 22 inches long and was considered a giant among brown snakes. The babies are small enough to coil up on a quarter. People who enjoy gardens and ornamental flowers in their yard should view brown snakes as a true friend. Why? Plant-devouring slugs are one of their common prey.

The small, pretty black snake with a yellow ring around its neck is also native to every eastern state. Unimaginatively named ring-neck snakes, they are usually less than a foot long. They eat earthworms and are active most of the year. One feature of ring-neck snakes is that they are unlikely to be confused with any of the venomous snakes. A deadly coral snake has a black head and neck with a yellow ring, but the red rings encircling the body of a typical coral make it distinctively different in appearance.

Another easily recognizable group of small snakes of the Southeast are the crowned snakes, which get no bigger around than a pencil. All have a black head and neck with a light-colored neck ring, but the rest of the body is tan. Crowned snakes are amazing little creatures in that they will catch and eat venomous centipedes. Other small snakes are the tiny worm snakes, the appropriately named red-bellied snakes and the very small earth snakes. All are completely harmless.

Many snakes throughout the country do not even reach the size of the babies of some of the larger species. Identifying those snakes in your neighborhood that will remain small year round is relatively easy with a field guide on snakes or a snake-identifying app.

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