Habits and disposition of Gray Rat Snakes

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The only terrestrial oviparous (egg-laying) snake inhabiting these parts that hasn’t undergone a sharp decline since imported fire ants became abundant is the gray rat snake, also known as chicken snake, oak snake, and white oak runner. It is gray with squarish dark blotches on the back and capable of attaining a length of nearly seven feet. It is also the species I have been most often called on to remove from inside residences. On four such occasions the snake was in a toilet bowl. Each time the toilet that was invaded drained into a septic tank, and the snakes could have gained entry into the commode via the septic system.
Several times the snake was in another part of the house. On one such occasion I received a call one evening from a woman who exclaimed,”Dr. Mount, there’s a snake in my attic, and I can’t live in a house with a snake. Would you please come and remove it ?” it was almost dark, and I told her I would try. She told me where she lived; it was in a rural area about 15 miles away.
I drove to her house, flashlight and pillowcase in hand, entered and climbed into the attic. It was hotter than blue blazes and the attic floor was covered with rock wool insulation. I spotted the snake, a large one lying where the underside of the roof meets the attic floor. I crawled across the attic floor, seized the snake by mid-body, and bagged it, but not before it had bitten my arm. I descended from the attic, the lady saw the blood and said, “You’ve been bitten. Shall I call for an ambulance?”
I said,”No ma’am, the snake was a non-poisonous gray rat snake, and the bite is no worse than a brier scratch.” She thanked me profusely and asked,”How much do I owe you?” I told her I did not ordinarily charge for removing snakes, but this one was more difficult. “Just write me a check for fifty dollars, and I’ll donate to our museum.” She said she would gladly pay me fifty dollars. “I would have been willing to pay you five hundred dollars for your outstanding service,” she told me.
Why gray rat snakes continue to be relatively common whereas most other terrestrial oviparous snakes have precipitously declined probably results from their nesting habits. They tend to lay their eggs under fallen logs, in rotting stumps, and tree cavities, where fire ants are unlikely to find them. The adults and quite likely the young spend much of their time in trees. They are excellent climbers.
Gray rat snakes prey on rats, mice, and chipmunks, and also feed on eggs and young of birds, including those of chickens. Like humans, individuals differ in temperament and disposition. Many, but not all, are disinclined to bite when handled gently and carefully. When captured, they often smear their captor with foul-smelling musk as they coil around the captor’s wrist and arm. A week or so ago, WSFA-TV showed an incident in which an electrician in Chilton County employed by the Central Alabama Electric Cooperative discovered a gray rat snake inside an electrical box on the ground. With gloves, he gently removed the snake and proceeded to release it unharmed. He deserves to be congratulated and appreciated by CAEC officials for releasing the snake.
With one notable exception, the gray rat snakes I have held as captives have been docile. The unusual individual as a three-footer I had in a cage when I was in junior high school. I let it be known that anytime the neighborhood youngsters could raise a quarter, I would stick my hand in the cage and allow the snake to bite me. Within a year or so I had pocketed several dollars for my perceived fearlessness.
Increasingly, rural residents, including Husky Kirkwood and I believe Dewey Northcutt, recognize gray rat rat snakes and appreciate their value in suppressing populations of destructive rodents. Because my name is no longer listed in the telephone directory, it’s been quite a while since I received a request to remove an unwanted snake. I assume this responsibility is now being assumed by Dr. Craig Guyer, the herpetologist who replaced me at the university, or by his present or former graduate students.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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