Black Rat Snake
Protected Wild Animal
These pictures are of a captive specimen from Wisconsin that was confiscated by the DNR from a dealer who was trying to sell it (which is illegal).
Description: This is one of the largest snakes in Wisconsin, attaining lengths of 40 to 72 inches. Adult coloration is primarily black. Occasionally, faint bands can be noticed within the black dorsal color. The chin, or lower jaw, of this snake is generally white or buff, as are their bellies. Juveniles are often heavily patterned and are easily confused with other snake species. Black Rat Snakes are members of the family Colubridae and the sub-family Lampropeltinae, which includes several non-venomous snakes found within Wisconsin. Within the state, they are most closely related to the Western Fox Snake, with whom they share the same genus (Elaphe).
Habitat/Ecology: Black Rat Snakes are reported to prefer bluffside forests, goat prairies, oak woodlots, and old pastures. They are the only truly arboreal (tree-dwelling) snake species found within the state. For this reason, a major food source for these snakes are birds and their young. Black Rat Snakes are constrictors, meaning that they wrap around their prey and slowly squeeze until the prey suffocates, before consuming it. These snakes over-winter in rock outcroppings (occasionally along bluff sides) that go below the frost line. These snakes may hibernate communally with other snakes, and generally emerge in late April when they can be seen basking on bluffy rock outcroppings. Mating is reported to occur in May. Eggs are said to be laid in late June (6 to 22 eggs), with hatchlings emerging after 60 days (approximately).
Remarks: Black Rat Snakes are occasionally found in the rafters of barns, where they probably enter to feed upon pigeons or rock doves roosting there. Both this, and their tendency to consume rodents, makes them a beneficial species to have around. It has been reported that Black Rat Snakes prefer to escape into trees if threatened, but will turn and bite if restrained.
It is interesting to note that these snakes were once also referred to as "Pilot" snakes, because it was believed (falsely) that they guided other species of snakes to over-wintering dens.
These snakes are only found in a small corner of southwestern Wisconsin and are rare in the La Crosse area. I have looked extensively but have never encountered one (however, their tendency to inhabit trees makes them more difficult to find). If anyone has seen Black Rat Snakes near La Crosse, please contact me.
Black Rat Snakes are listed as "Protected" by the Wisconsin DNR and it is illegal to harm or capture them. Violating this law can result in a stiff fine.