How to Identify a Snake in New York


New York harbors 17 native species of snake that range from the high forests of the Adirondack Mountains to the pine-oak woodlands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain on Long Island. Sometimes reviled or feared by human beings, snakes are rarely dangerous and perform essential ecological roles as predators of small creatures such as rodents. Sorting out New York's serpent roster is often straightforward, especially with the help of a good illustrated field guide.

  • Identify New York's two native species of rattlesnake by their arrow-shaped head and namesake tail rattles. The larger and more widespread of the two is the timber rattlesnake, which may exceed 5 feet. There is much color variation in timber rattlers, but those of the Northeast are often either tawny with broken, curved dark banding, or nearly black. The eastern massasauga is grayish with blackish spots along the back and the sides, and usually sports a black belly strung with light mottles. These rattlesnakes are usually 1.5 or 2.5 feet long. Timber rattlesnakes favor forested uplands, while the eastern massasauga often inhabits swamps and bogs; it is also called the "swamp rattler."

  • Watch for the northern copperhead's striking coloration and contoured head. Along with the two rattlesnakes, this is one of the few venomous snakes native to New York, where it has a highly scattered distribution. A big copperhead may be 4 feet long, with an orangish body broken with hourglass-shaped bands of richer rufous hue. This serpent's name stems from the top of its rust-colored head. Copperheads frequent broken cobble and brush in the lower Hudson River Valley.

  • Sort out the garter and ribbon snakes by their intricate coloration and slender builds. These closely related serpents exhibit a wide variation in pattern and hue, but often show yellow or red longitudinal striping and whip-thin bodies with somewhat elongate heads.

  • Identify the northern water snake by its robust build and habits. This muscular snake is typically marked with dark blotches separated by narrow light spaces. The northern water snake may exceed 4 feet in length, though it is usually smaller. It hunts fish, crayfish and amphibians in swamps, marshes, lakes and slow-moving rivers. While nonvenomous, it is relatively aggressive when defending itself, leading many to confuse it with the similarly aquatic water moccasin or cottonmouth, not found naturally in New York.

  • Distinguish the black rat snake by its large size, coloration and shape. This largest of New York serpents is usually uniformly black with some light speckling visible between scales. Mature adults may occasionally grow longer than 8 feet. Partly arboreal, these snakes opportunistically take advantage of diverse habitats in New York and other parts of their range, from old fields and meadows to rugged timberlands.

  • Key out other native snakes, from racers to milk snakes, by concentrating on prominent field marks, size, shape and habitat. Keep in mind that nonnative snakes may be encountered anywhere in the state due to accidental or intentional releases from captivity.


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