Nonvenomous Snakes Around the Yard

July 2, 2005

This is article number two in a series on nonvenomous or “good” snakes in Florida.

The Kingsnake Kingsnake

The kingsnake is a large, powerful snake found throughout mainland Florida in a variety of habitats, often near water. Although normally between 36 and 48 inches, it is known to reach 82 inches in length.

The kingsnake color pattern varies almost as dramatically as that of the rat snakes. In north Florida, most are the eastern kingsnake variety, which is shiny black with narrow crossbands of white or light yellow. Most central and south Florida specimens are the Florida kingsnake variety, with many indistinct crossbands on a yellow and black "salt and pepper" background. Some populations are intermediately speckled or blotched, but all varieties have the distinctive kingsnake chin marked by black and yellow.

The kingsnake is an egg-laying constrictor, feeding primarily on rodents, birds and reptiles. Its reputation as the "king of snakes" probably stems form its fondness for eating other snakes, including rattlesnakes and other pit vipers, whose venom does not harm the kingsnake. Persons not keen about having many snakes on their property should be careful to safeguard their local kingsnakes!

The Hognose SnakeHognose Snake

The eastern and southern hognose snakes are two of Florida's least offensive, yet most maligned nonvenomous snakes, due to their appearance and exaggerated defensive stunts. Hognose snakes are found in upland habitats and prefer dry, sandy woods and fields. The eastern hognose is found throughout mainland Florida while the southern hognose occurs only in the northern half.

Both hognose snakes are rather stout-bodied and have alternating brown and tan or yellow blotches, although some eastern hognoses are solid black above, with no sign of pattern. Young hognose snakes, which hatch in summer or fall, are gray with black markings. Eastern hognoses may reach 45 inches, but commonly are 20-23 inches long; the southern hognose never exceeds 24 inches. The peculiar upturned snout, which is most dramatic in the southern hognose, is specially designed for digging out toads, their major prey.

Many types of nonvenomous snakes are killed by Floridians each year out of fear or ignorance, but hognoses, because of their defensive antics, are more likely to be targeted. When alarmed, hognose snakes will hiss, puff and jerk about, raise their head, and flatten their neck into a convincing, cobra-like hood. They may even strike but don't open their mouth. If this doesn't frighten away their attacker, they then thrash about, spew out a foul-smelling musk, roll over, and play dead, often with the mouth open tongue dragging on the ground. Despite the hognose's dramatic display to ward off attack, the strategy backfires with people and the harmless snakes are often killed.

In contrast, the smaller but similarly patterned pygmy rattlesnake will coil, strike and bite savagely if molested. Pygmy rattlers do not have the sharply upturned nose of the hognose snakes and possess a tiny rattle that makes a barely audible buzzing sound.