Nonvenomous Snakes Around the Yard
July 9, 2005 updated November 12, 2009
This is article number three and last in a series on nonvenomous or “good” snakes in Florida.
Garter and Ribbon Snakes
In Florida, any snake you could describe as "striped" is nonvenomous, and the most familiar are probably the garter and ribbon snakes. Garter snakes are quite variable in color. They may be black, brown or greenish on a background checkerboard of small black spots, and most individuals have three obvious stripes on the back and sides running the length of the body. These stripes may be green, blue, yellow or tan. Garter snakes are fairly slender; their maximum length is about 48 inches, but most are 18-26 inches.
Ribbon snakes are colored similarly to garter snakes, but usually lack the background checkerboard pattern, and the back stripe may be faint or absent. As the name implies, ribbon snakes are exceedingly slender, and don't grow longer than 40 inches. They are excellent climbers, often taking refuge in low shrubs.
Large garter snakes may eat small rodents, but their common diet consists of worms, minnows, frogs and toads. They often are quite aggressive when cornered and expel a foul-smelling musk when handled. Ribbon snakes feed mostly on small fish, frogs and lizards. They are quick-moving and nervous, preferring to flee when given any chance to do so. Ribbon snakes rarely bite, but do release a strong-smelling musk when handled. Both species bear live young.
Water Snakes and "Moccasins"
Some people mistakenly call all snakes they see near water "water moccasins," but only the cottonmouth water moccasin is venomous. Most of the snakes seen along Florida rivers and lake edges are harmless water snakes. There is ample room for confusion, however, since both cottonmouths and water snakes may be very dark with rough scales, may attain lengths over 4 feet, and can be relatively thick-bodied.
Water snakes are distinguished from poisonous cottonmouths by their behavior and their "face." Cottonmouths tend to stay put when encountered, often coiled and, if sufficiently harassed, will give the open-mouth display that gives them their name. Harmless water snakes, which commonly bask stretched out on tree branches over water, are more likely to seek immediate escape into the water when encountered. Also, cottonmouths usually swim with their entire body on top of the water, whereas water snakes are more likely to escape underwater or swim with only their head at the surface.
The face of a cottonmouth has a more "sinister" appearance due to the broad scale that protrudes like a shelf above each eye. Its head has an angular, "chiseled" aspect, and Florida cottonmouths always have a dark brown band that runs across the side of the head through the eye. The nonvenomous water snakes have no protruding scales over the eyes, so they appear more "bug-eyed," and the head typically has a more rounded aspect.
Four of the largest and most commonly seen water snakes include the plainbelly, banded, brown and Florida green water snakes. The plainbelly water snakes frequents the banks of large rivers in the panhandle and northern peninsula (Suwannee River drainage), whereas the other three are common in rivers, lakes and ponds statewide. All are proficient hunters of fish, frogs and other aquatic animals and have long teeth for holding slippery prey. Thus, harmless water snakes, notorious for fiercely defending themselves, typically bite and draw blood when captured. Although nonvenomous, such bites are painful and, like all animal bites, should be washed thoroughly to avoid infection. Water snakes bear their young alive and sometimes abundantly; Florida green water snakes can have litters as large as 100!
Ringnecks and Other Snakes
All the snakes discussed so far are relatively large, but the most abundant snakes in Florida are seldom more than 12-14 inches long. Although common in most gardens and backyards, these diminutive snake species are easily overlooked due to their secretive habits.
A good representative is the southern ringneck snake, a distinctive little snake that is shiny black or dark gray above, with a bright orange or yellow neck ring. The belly is a startlingly bright orange or yellow with a row of black half-moons down the center. Ringnecks spend most of their lives under mulch or leaf litter, where they feed on small lizards, earthworms, slugs and salamanders. They are fairly social and often are found in groups of two or three. The ringneck is one of the least aggressive animals in the world and almost never attempts to bite people. Even if it should try to bite, its mouth and teeth are too small to cause a wound. When seriously threatened, ringnecks defend themselves by thrashing about and expelling musk. The four to seven eggs laid in midsummer hatch 40-50 days later into tiny snakelings, only 4 inches long!