It’s easy to get startled by harmless snakes


While mowing the yard, I always watch the grass ahead of me because I’d never forgive myself if I ran over and killed a box turtle. I’m always scanning for movement, so over the years I have spared many turtles, toads, mice, shrews and snakes.

Green snakes are particularly difficult to notice because they are so well camouflaged. Though their lime green skin is almost fluorescent in hand, in the grass it’s almost impossible to detect.

Different snakes

I know this from experience over a wide geographical area. Two species of green snakes occur in the U.S. The smooth green snake inhabits the northern Midwest east to New England.

The rough green snake occurs south of the smooth green snake’s range, though there is some overlap in their distributions. When I lived in Oklahoma, I found rough green snakes occasionally.

Here in West Virginia, I encounter the smooth species. The rough/smooth designation refers to the scales that cover these snakes’ bodies.

The rough green snake’s scales are keeled — a ridge runs along the middle of each scale.

The smooth green snake’s scales lack a keel and thus are smooth. They also differ considerably in size. A rough green snake can exceed 40 inches in length, while the smooth species tops out at about 22 inches.

Harmless to humans

Both species are slender, beautiful bright green above, and completely harmless to humans. Rough green snakes prefer dense brushy habitat where they spend much of their time sunning and hunting amidst the branches of small shrubs.

Smooth green snakes climb less frequently than their counterparts. They prefer meadows and grassy areas, including lawns, and can often be found under flat rocks and slabs of bark.

Killing a green snake with a mower is regrettable, but it provides a bizarre lesson in pigmentation. Shortly after death, green snakes turn blue.

Changing color

The yellow pigment that combines with a blue pigment to make the snake’s skin green breaks down quickly after death. Only the blue pigment remains, so the green snake’s body quickly turns blue.

Green snakes mate in June and usually lay their eggs in a depression under a flat rock. Five-to-ten capsule-shaped eggs incubate under the sun-warmed stone for six-to-12 weeks.

The eggs measure about three-quarters of an inch long. Hatchling green snakes are thin and about seven inches long.

Be alert

Hatching usually takes place in August, so be alert for young snakes, especially when mowing grass.

Green snakes eat insects and other invertebrates exclusively. Grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, and caterpillars are their primary foods.

Because they are so cryptically colored, green snakes typically lie quietly in the grass or shrubby vegetation and let their prey come to them. There are several other small, elegant, and nearly invisible snakes you might find this summer.

Consider yourself lucky to encounter any of these small species. They are shy and spend most of their time under rocks and logs and even underground.

All are harmless, and they eat insects, worms, slugs and snails. Ringneck snakes can grow to 20 inches, though most I find are smaller.

A ringneck’s black body contrasts sharply with the bright orange or yellow ring around the neck and the orange or yellow belly.

Northern brown snakes live near water or moist soil. They typically hide in thick vegetation or under logs or rocks. Watch for them near wet areas at golf courses and even city parks.

Adults measure only seven-to-13 inches long. Eastern worm snakes and smooth earth snakes are even smaller measuring only seven to 11 inches long. Larger songbirds, such as robins and bluebirds, sometimes eat worm and earth snakes.

It hasn’t happened often, but several times over 30 years I have found remnants of these delicate little snakes inside bluebird boxes. The best time to find these small snakes is after a summer rain.

Young of these inconspicuous and completely harmless snakes will be emerging over the next few weeks, so be careful when operating a mower. A snake is a terrible thing to waste.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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