Eeek! What is that snake in my backyard? We receive several calls a year from frantic and fascinated homeowners alike from the District and surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland wanting to know what kind of snake is in their backyard
Here is a little guide to help you out. Remember, all snakes are harmless if you leave them alone.
All snakes are able to flatten their head and shake their tail when scared.
(Disclaimer: Leave all snakes you find alone, they belong in the great outdoors; this includes your backyard. This guide is not intended to be the end all and be all of snake identification guides. All snakes can be born with different patterns and colors than what is typical for the species. As with ALL wild animals: Respect, watch, and admire from afar.)
ALL snakes listed are non-venomous unless otherwise noted.
1. Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) – a small, brown snake (15 inches) with darker paired spots down its back.
2. Ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus) – A small grey snake (up to 20 inches) with orange to yellow belly and a yellow or orange ring around its neck.
3. Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) – A greenish or brown snake covered in checkered spots, and a yellow to white line down its back. Grows up to 48 inches long.
4. Black Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta) – A large and harmless black snake that can grow up to 80 inches long (6.5 feet). The body is shaped like a loaf of bread. Belly is black and white checkered becoming gray near the tail. Baby or juvenile black rat snakes are often confused with other snakes as they are gray or brown with black blotches on the body. They are wonderful at taking care of rats and mice.
5. Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor) – A large shiny black snake that can grow to six feet. These guys will slither away very quickly. The young look very much like the baby black ratsnake.
6. Wormsnake (Carphophis amoneus) – A small shiny brown snake with a pink belly. They look very much like a large worm, growing to 15 inches. They think earthworms are delicious.
7. Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) – A large gray to brown snake with darker blotches on its back. They are non-venomous, that is they have no poison. Watersnakes live in and around water snacking on fish. Note: there are NO cottonmouths or water moccasins in the DC area.
8. Red Bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) – A small grayish brown to black snake with a red belly. They sometimes have black stripes down the back and light blotches on its neck.
9. Mole Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster) – It may look like a cornsnake, but its a kingnake! This gorgeous gray to brown snake with orange spots or blotches grows to 47 inches.
10. Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) – VENOMOUS (Poisonous)* This is the only venomous snake found in the DC metro and surrounding counties. Copperheads, like all snakes, will leave you alone if you leave them alone. This beautiful snake has eyes like a cat so it can hunt at night. Copperheads can be pinkish, tan, brown, and even a light rust color. Nearly every snake in the area has been mis-identified as a copperhead, although uncommon in the area treat all snakes with respect. This snake provides humans with a very valuable rodent control service.
Remember: Treat all snakes with respect. Leave them alone as they belong where you found them just like the birds and butterflies living in your backyard. Experts sometimes have trouble identifying snakes as all animals can be born all black (melanistic), patternless, or albino.
Find out more and join Virginia Herpetological Society
Visit your local nature center
Pinder, MJ and JC Mitchell, “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia.” 2002 Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Conant, Roger, “A Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Eastern & Central North America” (Peterson Field Guide Series)