Racer (Coluber constrictor)
Protected Wild Animal
Description: These are long, slender-bodied snakes, with adults reaching 36 to 45 inches. In our area, they tend to be slate blue or light brown with yellowish or pale throats and a light gray or white belly. Juveniles have a distinct pattern, that fades in adults, and causes them to be mistaken for other snakes. The scales of these snakes are un-keeled, giving them a very sleek appearance. Furthermore, these scales do not overlap each other. These snakes also have tails that are much longer (when compared to the rest of their bodies) than many other Colubrids. Racers are members of the family Colubridae, which includes several non-venomous snakes found in Wisconsin.
Habitat/Ecology: They are said to prefer open dry areas, such as sand prairies and oak savannahs, as well as brushy edges along agricultural fields. I have also witnessed them in lowland forests, adjacent to streams, with open bluff faces nearby, however, they generally seem more common in drier environments. While these snakes are often found basking in areas of sparse vegetation during the spring, they seem to prefer denser vegetation (such as sumac and raspberries) and brush piles later in the summer. These are active and quick predators that will feed on small mammals, amphibians, insects and even other reptiles. On one occasion, I found a Racer (that had been recently killed by a car) with a Garter Snake half-way down it's throat. Furthermore, they are often said to consume the prairie racerunner (Cnemidophorus sexlineatus viridis), which may occupy similar macrohabitats as racers. When threatened Racers will quickly vanish into nearby vegetation or burrows to avoid capture. Although their scientific name suggests that they are constrictors (Coluber constrictor), they are not. In some cases, they will use their coils to restrain struggling prey, but they do not truly constrict.
I have witnessed emergence from hibernation as early as the end of April. Females begin to shows signs of pregnancy by early June, and eggs are probably laid by late June at the latest. After eggs are laid, racers become more scarce, often hiding in burrows by day. By late June-early July high temperatures associated with hot summer days force these snakes to take on nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) habits. These snakes are known to over-winter in rock fissures or dens on the sides of bluffs, as well as abandoned mammal burrows the go below the frost line in lowland areas. They may also den communally with other snakes.
Remarks: Racers are quick moving snakes (approximately 4 mph), that will usually make an attempt at escape if threatened. On warm summer days, when their body temperature is high, Racers can evade a herpetologist's hands with incredible efficiency. One usually only gets a glimpse of a tail as the snake shoots off into thick vegetation, or a nearby burrow. They are much easier to view in the cooler spring and late summer months. When cornered, racers hiss and beat their tails upon the ground. If captured, they will bite aggressively, but their teeth rarely break the skin. It is said that racers can tolerate warmer temperatures than other species and can be found at times when other snakes seek refuge from the heat.
I have not found Racers within the La Crosse area, however, I have encountered evidence of them in nearby Crawford County (Wisconsin), and suspect they exist here as well. The lack of open areas with early successional vegetation is probably a primary reason for this. If anyone thinks they may have seen a Racer near La Crosse, please contact me.
This snake is listed as "Protected" by the Wisconsin DNR and it is illegal to harm or capture them. Breaking this law can result in stiff fines.