Ron Shelton’s 1992 film “White Men Can’t Jump” casts Caucasian men, at least jokingly, as being overly terrestrially-bound. Mr. Shelton didn’t see me almost step on that black snake last summer! I am sure he would have promptly begun searching for another, more suitable, title for his movie.
I was leaving our porch and realized, just as I almost stepped on it, that a black racer was moving quickly to get out of my way. I like snakes, especially non-venomous ones, but unexpectedly planting a foot on one is a sure ticket into the stratosphere.
For lack of a better word, black racers are cool. They are sleek, extremely fast and, I would argue, kind of pretty. They also help keep the rodent population in check. I would much rather see black racers in my yard than mice and rats in my garage or attic. Still, I would prefer not to actually step on one.
Several species of snakes, especially black rat snakes, can look very similar to black racers, but they tend to have less evenly-rounded bodies, more hints of browns or other colorations and keeled, or ridged, scales.
The black racer, Coluber constrictor, is very common in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. In fact, these snakes can frequently be found throughout the eastern United States from Maine to Florida. They are typically seen in the summer, as they are ectothermic (cold blooded) and not very active in the cooler months. They also feed by sight and are generally diurnal, meaning that they are not very active at night.
I was surprised when my daughter Caroline and I came across one while walking our dog earlier this month. It was a warm day, but by December I don’t expect to encounter many snakes out and about.
While the name Coluber constrictor might lead one to believe that black racers strangle their prey like traditional constrictors, they actually tend to catch it in their mouths and hold it there until it is dead instead of wrapping around it and squeezing. Adults grow up to
5 feet long, are generally slender and are very uniformly black except for some white under the chin and gray under the belly. Favorite food sources are rodents, lizards, birds, amphibians, insects and other snakes.
When alarmed, racers typically either speed away or stand their ground and strike aggressively. Once you have seen what “speed away” means, both the name “racer” and how they catch birds and rodents become perfectly clear. Bites are non-venomous, but painful and any snake is best just observed from a distance.
Black racers mate in the spring, and the females will lay up to three dozen eggs in the summer. Like many snakes, the young are born with a more camouflage coloration and have reddish-brown patterns and colors. These will fade to black as the young snakes mature. According to the National Park Service, black racers typically live about 10 years in the wild.
So, when the next black snake races across your path or zips across your lawn, consider yourself lucky. Someone is on the lookout and helping keep you rodent-free. All you need to do in return is watch where you step – and jump when required