Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Identify My Little Snake

No, this is not some weird porno contest, I really want you to try to identify a couple little snakes I found in my garden. First an explanation. I have a couple of large four foot window boxes with everbearing strawberries in them that I leave on an elevated deck during the summer (no problem with bunnies until they learn how to fly). I don’t get a ton of berries but it’s nice to walk out and occasionally grab a few for breakfast. During the winter I bury these boxes up to their rim in my fenced in garden. They over-winter with no problem.

Today I went out to dig them up and when I pulled them out I was greeted by the sight of three small snakes that were underneath the boxes. Two of them were maybe six inches long if stretched and no larger around than a pencil. The odd part is that they had very distinctive pale salmon-corral colored bellies. I’ve never seen that before. All I ever see around my house are dull green or brown grass snakes, sometimes a foot long.

The third snake got my attention by its manner. At first I thought it was just a baby grass snake, maybe six to eight inches long. On closer inspection it had a definite pattern of light/dark brown along its back, and here’s the weird part, it sort of coiled back and opened its mouth (all white inside) as if to strike. It was like watching a Discovery Channel show on rattlesnakes or something. It didn’t strike and I couldn’t see little fangs or even little rattles, but I never saw a grass snake behave that way. And one other thing, it had a head somewhat larger than its body, sort of that lumpy, almost triangular shape of rattlers.

Now I’ve never come across a rattlesnake where I live or at any time while hiking the Adirondacks. I don’t know how small they start out and I suspect that this was not an Eastern rattlesnake, but like I said, it was an eye-opening performance. And what’s the deal with its colorful buddies? So, all you snake lovers out there, please give me a clue. This area in question is central NY (Utica). I live on top of a hill (about 1200 feet) surrounded by woods.


  1. #1 afarensis
    April 28, 2007

    It is hard to identify a snake based on just a description. You might see if any of them are pictured here

  2. #2 Joseph O'Sullivan
    April 28, 2007

    The first two snakes are probably red bellied snakes

    The third snake was a definitely a hognose snake. They have an elaborate defense mechanism, but its all a bluff. If that does not work they’ll play dead.

  3. #3 chezjake
    April 28, 2007

    These are clearly juveniles, but I’d lay odds on them being Dekay’s brown snake. (Colors vary, but the belly color is rather tell-tale.) They are widespread, but seldom seem in the northeast US and southern Canada.


  4. #4 AJay
    April 29, 2007

    Fun question.
    Joseph O’Sullivan is probably correct about the first two with the colorful bellies, with an outside chance that they are Northern Ringneck snakes – Diadophis punctatus. [Did they a light colored ring around the neck?] Or, possibly the Eastern Worm snake – Carphophis amoenus, but it may not live in your area [see comments below on the Eastern Hognose].
    The third little guy [gal?] is probably not a hognose. I think that you would have noticed the prominent pointy up-turned nose of that species and mentioned it in your description, which you did not. Also, my field guide [Peterson] seems to show that the range for the Eastern Hognose snake does not quite get to the Utica area but I could be wrong on that, the scale of the map may not be adequate for such a conclusion, they do get close to your area. The opened mouth behavior is not a particularly good field character, I have seen juvenile garter snakes, brown snakes, and other spp. do the same thing many times, and they seem to do it more frequently when they are cooler in body temperature [pers. obs.] Was it a cool day?
    Unfortunately, your description [“pattern of light/dark brown along its back”] is not a huge help in narrowing it down, but I’ll throw out some possibilities:
    1. Northern Brown – Storeria dekayi, as suggested by chezjake. ; Usually have a plain back, but some do have some faint pattern.
    2. Juvenile Northern Black Racer – Coluber constrictor. Much different in appearance from the adults.
    3. Juvenile Black Rat snake – Elaphe obsoleta. Also much different from the adults.
    4. Eastern Milk snake. Not very likely though. Doesn’t fit your “almost triangular shape” of the head description.
    5. Juvenile Northern Water snake. Also unlikely. It would have no reason to be in a window box.
    Just so we can use the same terms take a look at the link provided by afarensis and let us know what you mean by “grass snake”, and “Eastern rattlesnake”.
    Hope this helps. BTW…any pics?

  5. #5 JimFiore
    April 29, 2007

    Sorry, no pics. I normally would snap a few but I was rather dirty and didn’t want to head into the house.

    Regarding terms, “grass snake” is what we used to call small snakes when I was a kid- the kind you’d find in the grass or mom’s flower garden. Usually brown or olive green. Not a very precise term I’ll admit. Very passive critters. I never saw one that looked or acted liked these.

    Regarding the water snake, a few hundred feet away is a little creek and this time of year the area is very wet. It was in the low 50’s F yesterday, overcast, some spotty rain. Also, the snakes were not IN the window box. When I pulled the boxes out of the ground, the snakes were exposed at the bottom of the resulting hole. The ones with the pinkish-corral bellies were laying belly-up. The third guy was sort of grayish brown with darker brown spots at regular intervals along its back (the upper portion anyway). No rings or stripes on any of them. I didn’t notice an upturned nose, but it was pretty small (not as fat as my little finger).

    None of the snakes were moving much. The two pink-corral belly snakes were almost as stiff as a board. The third one didn’t start moving until I started disturbing the area, ripping up some weeds and such. That’s when it coiled and opened its mouth (nice and white inside). That’s what caught my attention.

    From what I can gather, there are no venomous snakes that live in my area. My reference to the rattlesnake was just that the behavior reminded me of seeing rattlesnakes on nature shows.

  6. #6 AJay
    April 29, 2007

    Your further description of snake no. 3 pretty well clinches it in my mind that it was a Northern Brown snake, Storeria dekayi.
    Comparing with images at the above link and the link provided by chezjake [above] would you agree?
    And as for the colorful bellied ones, which would you say is the best match: Northern Red Belly snake, Northern Ringneck, or Eastern Worm? Just curious, I like resolution.

  7. #7 JimFiore
    April 30, 2007

    I think number 3 was the Northern Brown. Still not sure on the colorful ones though. It didn’t look like the Worm Snake images and the images for the Red Belly seem to have a very clear demarcation between the belly and head/sides. On the ones in my garden, the corral-pinkish color faded to white at the very edges (along the sides and toward the head). As a side note I think there was also a Worm Snake in the group that I didn’t mention before.

  8. #8 Joseph O'Sullivan
    April 30, 2007

    My guess was based mostly on behavior.

    Red bellied snakes when threatened will expose their colored bellies to warn predators. They have glands that give off foul smelling fluids. They also are very common in New York.

    The third snake, when you described its behavior, reminded me of a hognose snake. They do coil and gape and mimic the behavior of rattlesnakes. There is a theory that they do this to scare off predator. They do occur far a north as Utica, but this is at the fringe of their range.

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