The Black Racer
Today we had our second visit in three weeks by a black racer. We have seen snakes and the remnants of shed skins in the yard over the years, but I can’t recall having seen two different black racers in such a short period of time. I’m not completely sure what that may mean regarding population density changes, or if it’s a signal of some other changes happening in the food chain, or if it’s just a coincidence. I do know that it’s gratifying to see all of the varieties of critters that pass through. Partly it speaks to our location…an older subdivision, larger lots with mature landscapes that are not kept tightly groomed, a couple of streams close by, bordering woods and fields. I think we do invite them into our particular yard as well by allowing the grass along the fence to go untrimmed for weeks, letting some of the landscape beds get a bit overgrown or weedy at times, and planting things that produce plenty of flowers and/or fruit in succession throughout the growing season. We didn’t set out to attract wildlife, but our time and budget constraints, as well as our gardening habits have led to sightings of anoles, skinks, toads, frogs, birds of numerous types, butterflies and moths, chipmunks and squirrels, rabbits, box turtles, ring neck snakes, and more all either residing in, or making regular visits to our yard. Most of these happen to be food for the black racer, and the black racer happens to be one of the more common snakes in the eastern US. I suppose it’s not coincidence after all.
Identification and Range
The scientific name of the Black Racer, Coluber constrictor, is a misnomer. Although the snake shares some similar characteristics to constrictors, it portrays very little of the behavior patterns; it does not coil around and suffocate their prey. The black racer, as an adult, is usually between two and five feet long. It is almost completely black or dark gray often with a white chin area. Even from a healthy distance, the white chin looks different than the white mouth of a water moccasin, so there is no need to confuse the two. To me, the head seems sort of small, but the eyes look larger proportionally. They are present throughout eastern North America from southern Canada to Florida into Mexico. They can thrive in nearly all types of habitat within their range, with the exception of the driest areas in the southwestern US
The black racer is NOT venomous, but the bite is said to be painful. Our dog learned this lesson once when he decided to try to catch one. He has not tried to hunt the racer since. This is a nervous snake that does not want you to pick it up or try to keep it as a pet. It will not become tame. Your best bet is to enjoy watching it, but let it go where it was already going.
Black racers are active in the day. They are opportunistic carnivores, eating anything they can overpower including insects, small rodents, small birds, eggs, lizards, and other snakes. They are good climbers and swimmers. They run away fast when in danger, but are known to bite with fury if cornered or improperly handled. They do NOT chase anything, including people. Debbie saw the racer in the front yard while at the kitchen window. She was able to grab her camera and walk up to it and snap a few pictures before it sensed her. The racer then took off quickly AWAY from her.
If you do not wish to welcome the black racer to your yard, please be merciful to the unsuspecting traveler. There are some things you can do to discourage the presence of snakes in your landscape. First of all, keep shrubs and groundcover areas trimmed, as well as any fruit producing plant that may attract rodents (cherry laurels, indian hawthorn, etc.) Snakes will come around when their prey is present, and they have cover in which to hunt. There are also snake repellents available, many of which are made from natural ingredients that you do not have to fear. If they still happen to tresspass, you can chase them away with the shovel you may otherwise have dispatched them with.
I have not determined whether the black racer figures into the commonly used “beneficial organisms” list. Its presence seems neutral regarding its effect on my life. I would rather not think of it’s usefulness or lack thereof , but instead consider its parallel existence to mine something of a mystery that I may be able to learn from if I can find the time and energy to study it. In the meantime, I just enjoy having it in the neighborhood.
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