How to identify and react to snakes in Ohio

I encountered a small brownsnake a couple of years ago weed-eating around my garage. They are relatively docile and common in Ohio. (Sara Welch photo)

I have been waiting for warmer weather since the pleasantly warm days last fall faded to quiet rainy days and those eventually became freezing snowscapes. The weather has been teasing me lately. I’m all for 70 F and sunny weather in the spring. I just don’t like going back to 30 F in under a week.

I’m not the only one waiting for warmer weather that’s here to stay. Ohio’s reptiles and amphibians are impatiently awaiting higher temperatures. It won’t be long before I’m sharing my backyard with all sorts of slimy and scaly creatures. I can’t wait!

Snakes are one of my favorite animals to come across in the spring and summer. Most species gardeners and outdoorsmen come into contact with in Ohio are harmless. Many prefer to avoid contact with humans and typically just slither away. And snakes are generally pretty good neighbors as they consume many pests — worms, slugs, insects, mice, rats, chipmunks and other small rodents.

However, not everyone shares my enthusiasm about snakes and would prefer not to encounter them at all. Fortunately, there are ways to deter snakes from seeking refuge in your yard or garden and ways to respond to their presence that will not put you or the snake in danger.

Snakes you might encounter in Ohio

There are several species you might encounter, depending on where you live in Ohio, but the most common is the eastern garter snake. The eastern garter snake is widely distributed across Ohio, is rarely aggressive and habituates to humans easily.

Nonvenomous snakes

Eastern garter snake

garter snake

Appearance. The garter snake’s name comes from the three longitudinal stripes that run the length of its back. One stripe runs down the center with a lateral stripe on each side of it. They typically have black, brown, grey or olive bodies and their stripes appear lighter in color in hues of yellow, brown, green or blue. In some cases, the stripes are replaced by dark spots. There are also instances of totally black eastern garter snakes, which are typically found along the western basin of Lake Erie. This snake is one of the most variably colored and patterned species in the world. They seldom grow longer than 36 inches.

Habitat. The eastern garter snake is found across Ohio in moist areas, such as damp woods and grasslands and the edge of ponds, lakes, streams and rivers.

Habits. Garter snakes are most active during the day throughout the summer. They enjoy basking on rocks, decks, sidewalks and patios to warm up early in the day. As the temperature increases, they seek shelter under rocks, logs, stumps and porches.

Other species of garter snake. The endangered plains garter snake, Butler’s garter snake and short-head garter snake are also found in certain parts of the state. However, they are not as widely distributed and their populations are much smaller.

Northern watersnake

The northern watersnake is one of the most widely distributed and abundant snakes in Ohio. However, it’s unlikely you’ll come into contact with one unless you live near a body of water.

Appearance. Northern watersnakes have a stout body, which ranges in color from grey, brown or brownish-black to reddish. Its pattern consists of dark crossbands on its neck and alternating dark blotches down its back and sides that sometimes merge to form bands. Its color and pattern frequently get it confused with water moccasins or cottonmouths, which are not found in Ohio, and sometimes the eastern copperhead — one of Ohio’s three venomous snakes. However, the copperhead has a distinctly triangular head that the northern watersnake lacks.

Habitat. Northern watersnakes are found in and around permanent bodies of water.

Habits. This snake is most frequently observed basking on logs, stumps and rocks or on branches overhanging the water. When disturbed they typically drop into the water and disappear. Although the watersnake instinctually has a flight response, it will respond with a strong bite if it is picked up.

Dekay’s brownsnake

Appearance. The brownsnake is small and brown with two rows of dark spots running down its back.

Habitat. These snakes are common but prefer to remain hidden. When they are encountered they are most often found under stones, logs, old boards and other debris.

Habits. Brownsnakes rarely bite, even when they are captured. Their only real defense is excereting a substance from their musk glands when they are picked up. In addition, to their docile nature, brownsnakes feed on snails, slugs, worms and soft-bodied insects. So maybe leave this little guy alone if you encounter one.

Northern ring-necked snake

Appearance. Ring-necked snakes are black, grey and olive green with a lighter underside and a yellow or yellowish-orange ring around their necks. They grow up to 20 inches long.

Habitat. Ring-necked snakes are distributed throughout Ohio except for the west-central and northwest parts of the state. They like rocky, wooded hillsides and cutover wooded areas like those in southeast Ohio.

Habits. Ring-necked snakes are nocturnal for the most part and spend daytime concealed beneath logs, stones, boards and other objects. When disturbed in their hiding place, they usually seek cover under the nearest available object. They are mild-tempered when caught but discharge a pungent substance from their musk glands and wiggle to escape.

North American racer

Appearance. There are two species of North American racer that can be found in Ohio. The northern black racer can mainly be found in the eastern part of the state. As it’s name suggests, its body is plain black. The blue racer is a gunmetal grey with a blueish to greenish cast. It’s mainly found in western Ohio.

Habitat. Racers can be found in a variety of habitats, including fencerows, fields, grasslands and the edges of ponds, streams and woodlands. They are also excellent climbers and have been observed as high as 6-9 feet off the ground.

Habits. Racers are among the swiftest and most graceful of snakes in Ohio with a top speed of 10 miles per hour. They also rely more on vision than other snake species and are more likely to approach a person or potential predator. They become aggressive when an attempt is made to capture them. They will rapidly vibrate the tip of their tail when alarmed. When they strike they can inflict a painful bite with their small, numerous teeth.

Grey (black) ratsnake

Appearance. The ratsnake is Ohio’s largest snake, ranging from 4-6 feet long on average and reaching lengths over 8 feet on occasion. It differs in appearance from the black racer because of its dorsal pattern produced by the coloration of its skin between its scales.

Habitat. The grey ratsnake is a forest-dwelling snake that is distributed throughout most of Ohio, with the exception of northwest Ohio. It is an excellent climber and is often found high in trees, sheltering in woodpecker holes and other cavities. During the winter it hibernates in rock crevices with other snakes.

Habits. Most gray ratsnakes will freeze in position when they are encountered and remain motionless until they are touched. Some will even offer little to no resistance upon first being captured. However, more frequently a ratsnake that has been disturbed will vibrate its tail and strike repeatedly. Once picked up, a ratsnake will usually coil tightly around its captor’s arm and discharge a foul-smelling substance from its anal scent glands.

Eastern milksnake

Appearance. The eastern milksnake has grey or tan skin with reddish to brown, black-edged dorsal blotches. The center row is the largest with smaller alternating blotches on its sides. A Y- or V-shaped light-colored blotch is usually present on the nape of its neck. Its stomach has a black and white checkerboard pattern. 

Milksnakes are frequently confused for copperheads because the basic color of each is a rusty brown. However, the copperhead has a much richer copper tone, its belly is unmarked and cream-colored and characteristics typical of a venomous snake — a triangular head, vertical pupils and prominent heat-sensing pits between its eyes and nostrils.

Habitat. Milksnakes are commonly encountered throughout Ohio. They can be found in woods, meadows, river bottoms and even in cities where they enter buildings in search of mice.

Habits. The milksnake typically remains motionless or tried to slither away when it is first encountered. If it is disturbed, it may vibrate the tip of its tail and strike repeatedly. Fortunately, its teeth can barely puncture the skin.

The milksnake s a true constrictor, wrapping itself around its prey several times to exert enough pressure to prevent breathing and stop the heart. Then it consumes its prey whole.

Venomous snakes

Eastern copperhead

Appearance. The copperhead has a broad, unmarked, copper-colored head and a reddish-tan to brown body with hour-glass-shaped brown blotches with dark brown edges on its back. Its belly is unmarked and cream-colored.

Habitat. Copperheads are scattered throughout most of unglaciated Ohio, preferring the rocky, wooded hillsides of southeastern Ohio. They can also be found in habitats ranging from floodplains to ridge tops, but they tend to stay away from well-settled areas.

Habits. Copperheads are usually content to lie motionless or retreat when they are encountered, but they will vibrate their tail and strike widely if they are aroused. 

Although they have the distinction of having bitten more people in the U.S. than any other venomous snake, fewer deaths are credited to the copperhead because the strength and amount of venom injected during a bite is not enough to seriously hurt a healthy adult. Still, a copperhead bite is painful and has the potential to induce anaphylaxis.

Other snakes that are found in Ohio, but rarely encountered: queensnake, Kirtland’s snake, copper-bellied watersnake, Lake Erie watersnake, red-bellied snake, eastern hog-nosed snake, eastern smooth earthsnake, common wormsnake, eastern foxsnake, eastern black kingsnake, eastern ribbonsnake, northern rough greensnake, smooth greensnake, massasauga (venomous) and timber rattlesnake (venomous).

What to do if you see a snake

As mentioned above, some snakes meet an untimely end due to their appearance because they are mistaken for a venomous imposter. Before you take the shovel or garden hoe to an otherwise harmless snake, look for characteristics of nonvenomous and venomous snakes.

Nonvenemous snake characteristics

  1. Nonvenomous snakes usually have oval heads. In some species, they may appear somewhat triangular. 
  2. Round pupils
  3. Nonvenomous snakes don’t have pits. They only have nostrils present. 
  4. Nonvenomous snakes have divided scales on the underside of their tails. 
  5. Many snakes vibrate their tails when they are upset. However, nonvenomous snakes never have rattles.

Venomous snake characteristics

  1. Venomous snakes have distinctly triangular heads. 
  2. Elliptical pupils
  3. Venomous snakes have both pits and nostrils present. 
  4. Venomous snakes have undivided scales on the underside of their tails. 
  5. In Ohio, all venomous snakes, except for the copperhead, have a tail that ends in a rattle.

After you’ve determined the snake you’ve encountered is not venomous and poses no threat, leaving it alone and allowing it to retreat on its own is likely all that needs to be done. If it’s not moving along quickly enough, spraying it with the garden hose should do the trick.

You can also avoid accidental encounters by watching where you place your hands and feet when roaming fields and woodlands, especially in rocky areas, and by wearing gloves when you are gardening.

Additionally, there are ways to deter snakes from visiting your yard or garden by eliminating sleeping sites and food sources. Read how to keep snakes out of your house and away from your yard for more information on deterring them.

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  1. One of the most effective ways to survive an encounter with a snake is to not engage. If you come across a snake in your path, walk away. If you can’t turn and go the other direction, make sure to give the snake a wide berth as you circle around it.


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