Especially during Spring and Fall, we often see very small snakes, either on the sidewalks in morning or afternoon, or in our landscaping, often under rocks and other surface objects. We are talking about snakes about as big around as a pencil and usually less than one foot long. What the heck are they, and what are they doing in your yard?
The answer to the first question varies with where you live. In the immediate vicinity of Norman, Oklahoma and in most of the eastern half of the state, those small snakes are usually adults of several possible species. The first, and easiest to identify, is the Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus). It is dark gray or bluish on top with a narrow orange or yellow ring around its neck. If you bother it, it will coil its tail and turn it over exposing bright red to yellow underparts. The entire underside of the body is red to yellow with some black specks running down the belly. Ring-necked snakes eat small invertebrates, such as earthworms, spiders, and insect larvae, but they can take very small vertebrates.
If it is not a Ring-necked snake, the next thing to look for is some sort of pattern on the back of the body. If it has a pattern, then it most likely is a Brown or DeKay’s Snake (Storeria dekayi). Although the body color can vary from light tan to brown or even reddish, a lighter colored stripe will run down the midline of the back and the head will be darker than the rest of the body. However, look closely at the head and the tip of the tail, because the possibility exists that it may be a juvenile Pigmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius). If the head is triangular shaped and it has a tiny rattle on the end of its tail, then is it a Pygmy Rattlesnake and you should leave it alone. Brown Snakes mostly eat earthworms.
This leaves two small snakes, both of which are solid gray on top, with no obvious markings. One will have a slightly flattened (but not diamond-shaped) head that is a tad darker than the body. It will also have very small, beady black eyes, and if you turn it over, it will have a pinkish belly. This is a Flat-headed Snake (Tantilla gracilis). These eat centipedes.
The last common small snake is the Rough Earthsnake (Virginia striatula). These can be very common, often several under a single rock. They are gray, brown, or reddish with no obvious markings and the belly is a light tan (never pink). These eat earthworms, slugs, and insect larvae.
So, the next time you see a small snake while working on your landscaping, give it a close look and then come back to this blog. You should be able to identify it and assure yourself that it is something that belongs in your yard. And remember, these are all about as big around as a pencil, or less!