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Wild About Illinois Snakes! - Family Colubridae

​Unless otherwise noted, photos © Scott Ballard. No photographs included within this information may be used on the internet, publications or any other form of media without the photographer's express permission. All rights reserved.

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scarletsnake (Cemophora coccinea) Photo © Scott Ballard
The scarletsnake is a small (14-20 inches) snake. The snout is pointed and is covered with red scales. The snout is about the same width as the neck or just slightly larger than the neck. The anal plate is entire. Scales are smooth. Wide orange or red bands bordered with narrow, black bands are present on the back. The background color is white, cream or light yellow. The belly coloration is white or cream.
 
This species spends much of its time in the soil or under leaves and rocks, in bark or in logs. It is associated with loose soil in forested regions, often with pine trees.  It may be seen at the soil’s surface after heavy rainfall or on warm nights. It feeds on insects, young rodents, snakes and their eggs, lizards and their eggs and turtle eggs. It kills prey by constriction. Very little is known about the reproduction of this species. The only confirmed specimen of a scarletsnake from Illinois is from 1942. The last live scarletsnake from Missouri was seen in 1979. It is possible that the species still exists in Illinois because its habits make it difficult to observe. If so, it will most likely be found in southern and southwestern Illinois.
 
 
North American racer (Coluber constrictor) Photo © Scott Ballard
The North American racer averages 23 to 60 inches in length. Its color is variable, and the back may be brown, gray, olive, dull green or dull blue. The chin is white, throat yellow or white and the belly yellow-white to dark slate. Scales are smooth.
 
The North American racer lives in prairies, open woodlands and under rocks or brush. This snake is primarily terrestrial but will take to water to escape when threatened. It climbs trees readily and is active in the day. This snake moves very quickly, up to four miles per hour. When disturbed it vibrates its tail to make a "rattling" noise. It captures prey by throwing a loop over the body of the prey item, pressing it down. It overwinters on rocky, wooded, south-facing hillsides or in mammal burrows. Mating season occurs April through June. Males locate females by using their sense of smell. In late June or early July the female deposits eight to 21 eggs under rocks or logs, in stumps or in abandoned mammal burrows. The eggs have small, grainy nodes on them. Hatching occurs by September. The North American racer eats small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. It lives statewide in Illinois.
 
 
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coachwhip (Coluber flagellum)**  Photo © Scott Ballard
The coachwhip averages 42 to 60 inches in length. Its body is dark in front and lighter toward the tail, although the position of the switch in color is variable. The belly color corresponds to the back color. The scales on the tail are said to resemble a braided whip. The scales are smooth.
 
The coachwhip lives in Mississippi River bluffs with dry, rocky hillsides. This snake moves very quickly. It may hold its head off of the ground when moving. When disturbed, it will vibrate the tip of its tail, which may make a sound like that of a rattlesnake's rattle. This snake is active during the day. It overwinters in rock crevices or in burrows. Mating occurs in late spring. The female deposits from eight to 24 eggs under rocks or logs, in leaf litter or in soil in late June or early July. The eggs have small, grainy nodes on them. Hatching occurs by September. The coachwhip feeds on rodents, small birds, lizards, snakes, frogs and insects. Food is captured by throwing a loop of the body over the prey, pinning it down. When biting, it sinks the teeth in then pulls away, leaving a tear in the skin instead of a puncture wound. The Illinois range of this species is one county in southwestern Illinois.
 
 
prairie kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster) Photo © Scott Ballard
The prairie kingsnake averages 30 to 42 inches in length. It has shiny, smooth scales. The back and tail have a pattern of brown, red or green black-edged markings. The body color is brown-gray to tan. The belly is yellow with brown blotches.
 
The prairie kingsnake lives in prairies and open woodlands. This snake is active in the day during spring and fall but becomes nocturnal in summer. It may be found hiding under rocks, logs or boards or in small mammal burrows. The prairie kingsnake, when disturbed, will vibrate the tail rapidly, hiss and strike. It kills prey by constriction. Mating occurs in spring. Males use their sense of smell to locate females. The six to 13 eggs are deposited under rocks, logs or in sawdust piles in early summer. Eggs stick together as they are laid. Hatching occurs in August or September. This snake eats other snakes, lizards, rodents, small birds, bird eggs and turtle eggs. In Illinois, the prairie kingsnake can be found in the southern two-thirds of the state.
 
 
eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) Photo © Scott Ballard
Two subspecies of this snake are found in Illinois: the black kingsnake and the speckled kingsnake. The black kingsnake averages 36 to 45 inches in length. It has shiny, smooth scales. The head is a little wider than the neck. Its body is black above with small white or yellow spots that may be in a somewhat chainlike pattern. Some individuals may be almost pure black. The speckled kingsnake averages 36 to 48 inches in length. It has shiny, smooth scales. A white or yellow spot may be found centered in each of the black or dark-brown scales of the back. The spots may be close enough together to give the appearance of white bands across the back.
 
The black kingsnake lives in dry, rocky hills, open woods, dry prairies and stream valleys. It is most often found under flat rocks, logs or when it is crossing roads. This snake kills prey by constriction. When disturbed, it will vibrate the tail rapidly, hiss and strike. Mating occurs in spring. The female deposits about 13 eggs in July. Eggs tend to stick together. Eggs hatch in late August or September. This snake will eat other snakes, lizards, rodents, small birds, bird eggs and turtle eggs. The speckled kingsnake lives in swamps, woods and stream valleys, hiding under rocks, logs, ledges, vegetation and other objects. It is active in the day during spring and fall but becomes active at night in the heat of summer. It is believed to overwinter in small mammal burrows. The speckled kingsnake kills prey by constriction. When disturbed, it will vibrate the tail rapidly, hiss and strike. Mating occurs in April or May. The female deposits six to 14 eggs in July. The eggs tend to stick together. Eggs hatch in late August or September. This snake eats other snakes, lizards, rodents, small birds, bird eggs and turtle eggs. In Illinois, it lives in the southern one-half of the state.
 
 
 
milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) Photo © Scott Ballard
Two subspecies of this snake are present in Illinois. Their ranges do overlap, but the eastern milk snake tends to be in the northern one-half of Illinois while the red milksnake tends to be in the southern one-half of the state. The eastern milksnake averages 24 to 36 inches in length, has smooth scales, a "Y"- or "V"-shaped mark at the back of the head, large blotches (brown with black borders) on a gray or white back alternating with small blotches on the sides and a head about the same width as the neck. The red milksnake averages 21 to 28 inches in length, has smooth scales, a red back (red areas outlined in black) with white- or light-colored bands and very few blotches on the sides.
 
The milksnake lives in fields, woodlands, rocky hillsides and river bottoms where it may be found under logs, rocks and boards. This snake overwinters in small mammal burrows. The milksnake kills prey by constriction. When disturbed, it will vibrate the tail rapidly, hiss and strike. Mating occurs in the spring. About one to 13 eggs are deposited by the female in June or early July usually in a rotten log, stump or leaf litter. Eggs stick together. Hatching occurs in August or September. This snake feeds mainly on mice but will also take small snakes and lizards. It was given the name "milksnake" because at one time it was believed that it could milk cows.
 
 
 
rough greensnake (Opheodrys aestivus) Photo © Scott Ballard
The rough greensnake averages 22 to 32 inches in length. It is very slender with a green back and a white, yellow or pale green belly. The scales are keeled (ridged). After the snake dies, the body color changes to a dull blue. The mouth cavity is purple.
 
The rough greensnake lives in vegetation around water. This snake is semiaquatic, entering water as well as living on land. It is excellent at climbing, often foraging in shrubs and trees during the day. Mating occurs in spring and fall. The female deposits from three to 12 eggs under a rock, in leaf litter, in a brush pile or in a rotten stump during June or July. Eggs hatch in late summer or early fall. It eats insects and spiders. The rough greensnake can be found in the southern one-half of Illinois.
 
 
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smooth greensnake (Opheodrys vernalis) Photo provided by deepspacedave/pond5.com
The smooth greensnake averages 12 to 20 inches in length. It has a green back and a white or yellow-white belly. The scales are smooth.
 
The smooth greensnake lives in prairies, wet meadows and vacant lots. This snake is terrestrial, rarely climbing off the ground. It is active during the day, hiding under rocks, boards or grasses at night. It is believed to overwinter in small mammal burrows. Mating may occur in spring or fall. The female deposits five to 15 eggs in rotten logs, decaying vegetation or leaf litter. Eggs are laid in July. More than one female may deposit eggs in the same nest. Hatching occurs in August or early September. This snake eats slugs, spiders and insects. The smooth greensnake can be found in the northern two-thirds of Illinois.
 
 
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Great Plains ratsnake (Pantherophis emoryi)** Photo © Scott Ballard
The Great Plains ratsnake averages 24 to 36 inches in length.  The scales in the middle rows along the back are weakly keeled (ridged) while the remaining scales are smooth. A “spearpoint" shape is present between the eyes. The tail has stripes underneath. A blotched pattern of gray, brown, red-brown or olive-brown is seen on a light gray body. The belly is patterned with black and white.
 
The Great Plains ratsnake lives in rock bluffs near waterways. This snake is secretive, hiding under rocks, logs, boards, in rock crevices and in small mammal burrows in the day. Active at night in warm weather, it climbs readily. It will vibrate its tail when disturbed. The female deposits four to 12 eggs under objects on the ground during early summer. Eggs hatch about one month later. This snake kills its prey by constriction. It eats birds and small mammals. This species lives on bluffs along the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois.
 
 
midland ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides) Photo © Scott Ballard
The midland ratsnake averages 42 to 72 inches in length. The scales in the middle rows along the back are weakly keeled (ridged) while the remaining scales are smooth. Two subspecies of this snake are present in Illinois (black ratsnake and gray ratsnake) which are very similar in habits but are different in appearance. The black ratsnake is plain black, sometimes showing traces of a white pattern when the skin is stretched. Its belly has a checkerboard pattern, the throat is white, and the head is wider than the neck. The gray ratsnake has a blotched pattern on a gray or pale brown background.
 
This snake may be found throughout Illinois in rocky hillsides, woodlands, thickets, old fields, barnyards and farm land. Active by day except in hot weather, it climbs readily into trees. It may freeze in place when disturbed. If annoyed, it will raise its head, vibrate the end of its tail and lunge. This snake kills its prey by constriction. In the fall it congregates in places like rock outcrops (where it may hibernate with rattlesnakes and copperheads), mammal burrows, cisterns, wells or rotten tree stumps. Mating occurs in April or June. The 10 to 20 eggs are deposited in rotten wood, sawdust or in soil under rocks between May and July. Eggs hatch from late July to September. The ratsnakes feed on birds and small mammals, particularly rodents. It can be found statewide in Illinois.
 
 
eastern foxsnake (Pantherophis vulpinus) Photo © Scott Ballard
The eastern foxsnake averages 36 to 54 inches in length. Its body is yellow to light brown and covered on the back with a series of dark brown to black blotches. The head is wider than the neck and is usually brown to red with no blotches. The belly is yellow with black checks. Scales with weak keels (ridges) are present along the middle of the back but are smooth elsewhere.
 
The eastern foxsnake lives in farmlands, prairies, pastures and woods. This snake is terrestrial and active during the day. It may find shelter under logs, boards or in other animals' burrows. Its prey is killed by constriction. When disturbed, it may vibrate the tip of its tail and strike. Mating is believed to occur in April. Courting begins when the male chases the female for as much as 40 minutes. The female's eight to 27 eggs are deposited in soil, rotten logs, leaf litter or sawdust. Eggs stick together as they are laid. Hatching occurs in late August and September. This snake eats small mammals and birds. In Illinois, it lives in the northern two-thirds of the state.
 
 
gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer) Photo © Scott Ballard
The gopher snake averages 37 to 72 inches in length. It has a yellow-tan body with dark blotches along the back. The blotches are darkest near the head and on and near the tail. The belly is yellow with black spots. A dark band is found from the eye to the angle of the jaw with a band of yellow above it. The scales are keeled (ridged). The head is wider than the neck.
 
The gopher snake may be found in the prairies and sand prairies of central and northern Illinois. It is terrestrial and will climb occasionally. It is active mainly during the day. This snake hides in vegetation, rock piles and mammal burrows, where it may also hunt. When disturbed it will hiss and vibrate its tail. It overwinters in small mammal burrows, under rock piles or in rock crevices. Mating occurs in April or May. In June or July the female deposits about 10 eggs in rotten wood or in the ground. Several females may lay their eggs in the same place. The eggs stick to each other as they are being laid. Eggs hatch in August or September. The gopher snake eats small mammals, birds and bird eggs. It constricts its prey items to kill them.
 
 
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flat-headed snake (Tantilla gracilis)* Photo © Scott Ballard
The flat-headed snake averages seven to eight inches in length. Its head is darker than the rest of its body. The back is brown, and the belly is salmon pink. The scales are smooth. Its head is flattened and slightly wider than the neck. The flathead snake is the smallest Illinois snake.
 
The flat-headed snake lives under rocks on bluffs along the Mississippi River. This species spends much time under rocks or in underground burrows. It escapes summer and winter weather by burrowing. Mating occurs in April or May. One to four eggs are deposited in the soil under rocks in June. Hatching occurs in late summer. The flat-headed snake eats small arthropods.
 
* = threatened in Illinois
** = endangered in Illinois