Gardening: The snakes of Florida

Eileen Ward
A water moccasin suns itself at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on Wednesday 2/28/2019. The swamp is filled with life this time of year. Sightings include painted bunting, warblers, snakes, alligators, limpkins and hummingbirds.

Snakes and alligators are two of the most feared species we live with on the edge of the Everglades. According to National Geographic News, Florida has unfortunately developed an established population of three large, alien constrictors or snakes. The Burmese python species, recently discovered on and around Marco Island, the boa constrictor and the African rock pythons described as 20 feet long, ill tempered, mean, and vicious.

Fortunately for us, the rock pythons have mostly been found in the Miami area. But the find included a pregnant female and two young. Proving to be more than the breeders could handle, they may have released them into the wild. This is true of all these giant snakes as well as a lot of other exotic animals, fish, etcetera.

Category five Hurricane Andrew has also been blamed for the release of exotics into the Everglades including the constrictors. Invasive species, plant or animal, are considered the number one environmental threat to the United States. One should never place a plant or release an animal if you don’t know the consequences to the environment.

Most snakes, including the constrictors, are not poisonous yet people fear most of them as if they were. There is less than one death a year from snakebite in Florida. More people are killed by lightening. The pythons are unlikely to attack a person unless provoked or protecting young. Florida has 37 species of non-poisonous snakes and only six species which are poisonous. These are the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, pigmy rattlesnake, Canebrake rattlesnake, copperhead, cottonmouth/water moccasin and the coral snake.

One way to tell venomous vipers from non-poisonous snakes are the eyes. Vipers have vertical slits while non-poisonous snakes have round eyes. The poisonous coral snake is an exception. An old jingle which helps differentiate the coral snake from the non-poisonous scarlet snake is “red and yellow kill a fellow.” If the red rings touch the yellow, beware!

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29:  Edward Mercer, a   Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission non-native Wildlife Technician, holds a North African Python during a press conference in the Florida Everglades about the non-native species on January 29, 2015 in Miami, Florida.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission along with the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (ECISMA), Miami-Dade County, National Park Service, South Florida Water Management District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Geological Survey, University of Florida were surveying an area for the Northern African pythons (also called African rock pythons) and the Burmese Python in western Miami-Dade County. The teams of snake hunters were checking the levees, canals and marsh on foot for the invasive species of reptile. Many of the non-native snakes have been introduced in to the wild when people release pet snakes after they grow to large to keep.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 535051141 ORIG FILE ID: 462470628

This means the poisonous snakes are relatively in yards on Marco Island. The fact is that most snakes are beneficial and fascinating creatures. They have been so feared and mistreated that their populations are severely diminished in Florida and around the world. Here on Marco Island we used to have a good population of six-foot black snakes and rat snakes. Now it is very rare to see one at three or four feet and even the babies are hard to find.

This is not a good thing. We are experiencing an increase in our rat population because we are destroying this valuable natural predator of rats. Snakes rarely enter a home and only by mistake when they do. The rats on the other hand like nothing better than a nice warm attic to call home. I’ll take a snake in the yard over a rat in the attic any day. Snakes are usually more afraid of you than you are of them and will retreat when encountering people.

A beneficial snake often mistaken for a coral snake, due to its red and yellow coloring, is the gentle rat or corn snake. This is also a large snake which can reach six feet in length. Its color patterns can vary considerably from yellow, orange, red or brown and grey. This snake feeds almost exclusively on rats and mice. Because of its coloring and markings my concern is that people will kill them thinking they are pythons.

Some other common non-venomous species on Marco Island include the Southern Black Racer which is jet black with a white chin and can grow to be six feet in length. The black racer preys on rats, mice, frogs, toads and lizards. Another is the southern ring neck snake. This is a tiny snake usually eight to 12 inches long. It is black or dark grey with an orange or yellow ring around its neck and an orange belly. For the garden this is a great snake as its diet includes slugs and snails.

Non-poisonous snake species come in many sizes and colors and are found in most of Florida’s different habitats from the mangrove swamps to dry scrub to the backyard.

Another misconception is that snakes are slimy. In fact, their scales are very dry and clean, composed of neatly joined scales which repel water. Snakes feel wonderful to the touch. If you’ve never held one I highly recommend it to those who can muster the courage.

In my 30 years of gardening all over Marco Island the only venomous snake I have ever seen is the pigmy rattlesnake. This is a small snake, usually under 30 inches long. It is grey with black blotches and there is usually an orange stripe interrupted by black blotches down its back and on the back of its head. It looks very similar to a baby black snake. The baby black snake has the round eyes of a non-venomous snake and is brown and grey without the red on the head and back.

So, the next time you come across a snake chances are it’s harmless and probably beneficial so don’t be so quick to kill it. Let our snakes live and grow. They really are beautiful creatures. Snakes are an integral part of our ecosystem and should not be destroyed or bothered unless they become a danger. Obviously, the pythons are to be taken seriously and should be removed. However, if you’re not sure of the species, you should let the authorities handle it, so we don’t unnecessarily reduce the populations of our native snakes.

If you find a snake inside your house or in your yard and feel a need to kill it, you can call me and if available I will come and rescue the snake and relocate it. You can reach me on my cell phone at 239-269-0192. Thank you in advance for not killing our snakes.

Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at or 239-394-1413.