Description: As their name suggests, Red-bellied Snakes have an orange or deep red ventral surface, margined by grayish bands. Their backs can be gray, brown, reddish-brown, or black with several lighter gray and dark gray stripes extending longitudinally. Some individuals will also have a very faint rusty brown or orange band around their necks (pictured above). These are small snakes that generally only reach 2.8 to 4.3 inches as juveniles and 8 to 10 inches as adults. Red-bellied Snakes are members of the family Natricidae. Within the state, they are most closely related to the Northern Brown Snake.
Habitat/Ecology: Red-bellied Snakes are commonly found under debris or ground cover in wooded habitats or moist grassy meadows. I have also found them under corrugated metal sheets, generally in the late spring. Red-bellied Snakes seem to be able to withstand a degree of human disturbance. These snakes are reported to actively hunt food in broad daylight, however, their small size makes them unobtrusive. Red-bellied snakes feed primarily on soft-bodied prey, such as slugs, sow bugs, or snails.
Remarks: It has been reported that these snake are appreciated by berry-patch owners because they eat the slugs that plague low-growing berries. Red-bellied Snakes will almost never bite and if they do, it rarely breaks the skin. This should not, however, prompt people to believe that they make good pets. In most cases, individuals removed from the wild refuse to eat. Furthermore, their varied diet of small, infrequently seen invertebrates makes them hard to feed in captivity and they usually do not survive.
I have not found Red-bellied Snakes within the La Crosse area, although I believe that they exit here. I have encountered them in nearby Houston and Winona Counties (Minnesota). It is interesting to note that most of the Red-bellied Snakes which I have witnessed under metal debris were gravid females. It seems plausible that the sun heats these metal objects to a greater degree than the surrounding environment and that pregnant females seek out these areas of elevated temperature to assist embryo development.
It is also interesting to note that the areas where I found these snakes were mostly grassy open areas, with hillsides covered in wild strawberries and black berries.
These are harmless snakes which eat invertebrates that may be considered pests. Therefore, these snakes are beneficial and should NEVER be killed.