Screams in the garden: Encounter with an Eastern Black Racer

An Eastern Black Racer catches a leopard frog

Washington Oaks Gardens State Park is known for its large garden and ancient oak trees. As I walked the roadside edging the garden, I heard a scream. I stopped and listened. Silence, then the screaming resumed. And this time it didn’t stop.

I was alone in the park and, as I ran to the sound, my mind raced. It didn’t sound quite human. Had a bird become entangled? Impaled?

I stood in the middle of a grassy field. Listened. The sound was coming from a distant tree line.

My eyes scanned as I covered the last few yards. And then I saw it.

A large leopard frog reached desperately forward, fingers spread, trying to grasp anything that might save it from being dragged away. It’s hind leg was gripped by the jaws of a long, shiny snake with a maniacal eye, an Eastern Black Racer.

The frog pleaded for help as I watched.

I could dissuade the snake by touching it. I’d done it before when a racer had a cardinal chick in its clutches – a chick I’d been observing in my garden since it hatched.

Cardinal chicks

I ran to our shed and grabbed a bag of topsoil; took a clod from the sack and thunked the snake’s tail.

The serpent spit out the bird, then raised itself high. Turned and confronted its attacker. But when it saw nothing there, it slithered away, scolded by birds that suddenly appeared.

That had been an emotional response. I’d been driven to defend one of my own. But now, although I felt pity for the frog, it didn’t seem right to take the snake’s meal. A meal it had caught fairly.

So being torn, I did what every person does in our modern world. I snapped a picture.

Although Washington Oaks’ gardens border woodland, Black Racers are often found in suburban gardens, which offer open areas bordered by low shrubs. When disturbed, their first line of defense is to flee. And in this case, the snake did retreat into the brush once its prey had been adequately subdued.

Their next defense is wild, undulating movement that might startle a predator.

If that doesn’t work, the snake may coil and strike, while thumping its tail against the ground. Or it may hide its head beneath its coils and secrete musk across its body. At this point, the animal is terrified, so it’s kinder to back off and leave the poor thing alone.

But if one persists and grabs the snake, it bites ferociously as a last resort. And relieves itself of pungent feces. When handled, it may panic and struggle so much that its tail breaks off—a permanent injury.

Reports differ as to how fast a Black Racer can move, ranging from 4 mph (6.5 km) to 10 mph (16 km), the speed of a brisk walk or quick jog. It uses its speed to escape enemies or overtake prey, which it hunts visually during the day.

The racer can raise the front of its body to peer over tall grasses. It can also hear its prey and is sensitive to vibration. And it can track prey using its forked tongue to capture scent molecules, determining which direction to move by gauging which tine is most affected.

Anything that it can overtake and overpower becomes prey, including insects, spiders, reptiles (including small turtles and other snakes), birds and their eggs, small rodents, and occasionally rabbits. Although the scientific name, Coluber constrictor, suggests that it squeezes and suffocates its prey, it only uses its coils to hold the prey down as it is swallowed alive. The snake’s backward-pointing teeth hold prey items fast and push the meal toward the animal’s throat.

In turn, racers are eaten by other snakes (including larger racers), predatory birds, dogs, cats, and coyotes. They are often killed by vehicles, as they lay on the road to bask, or by gardeners who fear snakes or mistake them for venomous species. Sometimes their winter dens are crushed by construction equipment.

Black Racers prefer warm sunny days, and retreat to their dens when temperatures fall below 60˚F (16˚C). They often overwinter in abandoned mammal burrows, which may be shared with other snake species, including venomous species. They do not truly hibernate during this time. Instead, the snake remains awake but becomes lethargic.

A brumation spot must offer space below the frostline, and the snake may investigate several options before deciding on a place to rest. In addition to discarded burrows, racers may also overwinter in rotted stumps or stony crevices.

The Eastern Black Racer mates in the spring. At this time, the female releases pheromones which may attract several suitors.

After she has mated, the female lays 3-32 oval eggs, with larger snakes having larger clutches. The eggs are deposited in a rotted stump, an old mammal burrow, under leaf litter, or even beneath garden mulch. However, communal oviposition has been recorded. At one site, 300 snake eggs were found together. Many of the eggs were from Black Racers, but other species were also represented.

Racer eggs incubate for 43-64 days (depending on temperature). Hatchlings appear in late summer or early fall.

Juvenile Black Racer
Photo courtesy of FWC Fish and Wildlife Rescue through Flickr’s Creative Commons License

Youngsters are gray with red-brown blotches, only taking on their adult coloring when 12 inches in length. Male snakes reach maturity at one to two years of age; females two to three. Unless they meet with unfortunate circumstances, Black Racers are long lived, having a lifespan of up to 10 years.

They don’t make good pets, however, since they dislike handling and need large cages. Home ranges in the wild can be 1.5 square miles (2.4 square km), and they can travel a half-mile (.8 km) in a single day. Instead of caging them, consider making your yard snake-friendly. And educate neighbors so they don’t kill your guests.


REFERENCES
UF Wildlife – Johnson Lab, Florida’s Snakes:  Black Racer or Blacksnake (Coluber constrictor), University of Florida, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.
Hastings Angie, Coluber constrictor: Eastern Racer. Animal Diversity Web.
North American Racer (Coluber constrictor). Florida Stake ID Guide, Florida Museum.
North American Racer, Amphibians and Reptiles of South Dakota, South Dakota Herps.
Wilson J.D., Black Racer (Coluber constrictor). Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, University of Georgia.
Northern Black Racer (Coluber c. constrictor). Wildlife Fact Sheet, Wildlife in Connecticut.
Black Racer. Fort Matanzas, National Park Service.
Black Racer. State Endangered (Maine).
Litvaitis John, Black Racers: Living on the Edge. Northern Woodlands, Summer 2019, 17 June 2019.

Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She is a cognitive trainer and English tutor with a passion for day-hiking and nature. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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