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Identifying Common Snakes

July 28, 2016

I recently posted an instructional guide on what to do if/when you find a snake in your yard. Today, I thought it’d be a good idea to briefly introduce a few snake species so that homeowners might better be able to identify the snakes that most commonly turn up in local yards. Virginia is home to more than thirty species of snakes, but I’ve narrowed this post down to just a handful of species that are encountered most frequently around local homes and gardens.

Eastern Rat Snake:

More commonly known as the Black Rat Snake, this snake is Virginia’s longest native snake, capable of reaching up to 8 feet in length! It is one of the most commonly encountered snakes on the East Coast, and can regularly be found in close proximity to humans and their homes. While their sheer size makes them formidable, Eastern Rat Snakes are actually very docile, and will typically flee at the first chance when encountering people. As their name suggests, they feed predominantly on rodents, drawing them closer to people where mice and rats are most active. They are generally black in color, though some, like the photo, may still retain some of their juvenile coloration (young rat snakes are grey with black splotches), and have a black and white “checkerboard” pattern on their belly. They are a very arboreal species, commonly found in trees, barns and the occasional attic.

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Eastern Garter Snake:

The eastern garter snake is a very commonly seen resident of Virginia. Though it doesn’t grow nearly as large as the rat snakes, it can still reach a respectable four feet in length when fully grown! Garter snakes are beneficial to people because they consume small rodents and insects that we deem as pests, but may also feed on fish, worms, frogs, eggs, leeches and even other snakes. If disturbed, a garter snake may bite, but will generally also release a foul smelling musk, prompting a predator to release it. The are easily identified by three yellow strips running down the length of their bodies, with a checkerboard pattern of spots between the stripes. Home owners will not find garter snake eggs on their property, as these snakes actually bear live young and do not lay eggs at all!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Rough Earth Snake:

The Rough Earth Snake is a very small, fossorial (burrowing) species, typically only found when gardening or doing yard work that requires digging. At first glance, they may be mistaken as an earthworm, as even the largest specimens are generally less than 10 inches in length! Although they may be encountered in small groups, earth snakes are completely harmless and have never been known to bite even when handled (If necessary, these snakes can be safely picked up and relocated, but like any wild animal, one should avoid handling as much as possible). Rough earth snakes may be brown, gray or even reddish but have no patterns or coloration except for a light band around the neck in juveniles. If they encounter a predator, Rough Earth Snakes may lie still or play dead until the threat passes.

Eastern King Snake:

The Eastern King Snake is an average sized snake, generally maxing out around 3 1/2 – 4 feet. Like the eastern rat snake, the king snake is mostly jet black in color, but is easily identified by the presence of white bands or a chain-link pattern. Though they are nonvenomous and fairly docile, king snakes may bite if cornered or handled, and should be left alone whenever possible. If disturbed, a they may shake their tail much like a rattlesnake and discharge a foul smelling musk. Despite this, many homeowners appreciate the king snake because it feeds largely on other snake species, including venomous species like copperheads and rattlesnakes!

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Northern Brown Snake:

Also commonly called the Dekay’s Brown Snake, the Brown Snake is another small species of snake, rarely attaining more than a foot in length. It is generally brown or gray, with a central light stripe running down the body bordered by two rows of black spots. Like garter snakes, Brown Snakes feed on a host of invertebrates, most notably earthworms, slugs and snails. Commonly found in yards and gardens, the Brown Snake is completely harmless and docile!


By and large, the snakes we most commonly encounter near our homes are nonvenomous and completely harmless. They are beneficial animals that do much for us in the way of pest control, and we can live comfortably alongside these species with little to no comflict. To learn more about these snakes, and the other snake species of Virginia, come check out the Virginia Living Museum and see them up close! And don’t forget to be on the lookout for these awesome guys the next time you’re relaxing outside, doing a bit of yard work or looking for your next Pokemon!

Note: The snakes of Virginia inhabit different ranges and may occur more commonly in certain areas than others. This post focuses on just a few of the most common species found in Newport News and the Tide Water region. For more information, please consult local field guides on the species native to your area.



  • Marianne Benton

    Saw a young snake in my garden about 10 inchens inlength with a yellow ring at the end of its head. It quickly moved. Can you tell me what kind if snake I saw?

    • Thomas Waser

      Hi Marianne, it sounds like what you saw was most likely a Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus). These guys are fairly common and harmless to humans (their only real defense is to secrete a foul musk that smells unpleasant). These guys are great to have around as they will feed on a lot of insects we think of as pests! They also don’t get very large; 10-15 inches is about as large as they get.

  • Sheria Rutherford

    I see every year small baby grey looking snakes. Are they baby copperheads. I don’t want them to bite my doggie. They be under concrete blocks, the trash can outside and in the grass. What is it

    • Thomas Waser

      Hi Sheria,

      Without seeing a photo of the snakes, I can’t say for certain what species they are, but it does not sound like they are copperheads or any other dangerous snake species. More than likely, a small grey snake is some species of ground snake or a juvenile rat snake, all of which are great to have around your home because they will feed on pests (and they will leave your dog well alone!). Copperheads are born a more brown color, and have a bright yellow tail as babies; they generally don’t turn up around peoples’ homes (the ground snakes and rat snakes I mentioned are much more common!).

      If you are able to get a photo of one, you can email me at and I can give you a more accurate identification. Even so, I would say that it sounds as though you are finding the “good” snakes!

  • Julie

    Found a snake in our backyard. Cannot identity it. It’s brown with small black and white chevron pattern on back. I have a photo but couldn’t figure out how to post it.

    • Thomas Waser

      Hi Julie,

      If you have a photo, you can email it to me at and I’ll see if I can give you an identification as well as some info!

  • Anne Elizabeth Stevens

    Hi, I saw a snake with two long orange stripes down its back? I’m guessing a garter snake? He was on top of a juniper bush. I believe his/her nest must be underneath. Will they eat copperheads? Thank you!

    • Thomas Waser

      Hi Anne,
      To me, this sounds most like a ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus), a species very closely related to our eastern garter snake. They generally feed on insects, slugs, amphibians and the occasional small rodent, but they don’t get large enough to feed on copperheads (only the kingsnakes will really do that). Still, it might deter copperheads a little bit; sometimes they will avoid areas with other snakes to avoid competition, however I wouldn’t worry too much. While garter snakes species are relatively common around gardens feeding on bugs and worms, species like copperheads really like to keep their distance from us!

      If you have any more questions or concerns, you can reach out to me at

  • Jim Smith

    I saw a brown snake about 30″” long and as big around as my little finger; no rattles. He had a very distinct diamond pattern on his back extending from his head to near the end his tail. His head was similar to a venomous snake and he lifted his head and looked right at me as he followed me as I moved around him. I looked in the references for snakes commonly found in Virginia but was unable to pick him out. He reminder me of much larger Diamond Back Rattle Snakes I have seen in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, but was much smaller.

    • Thomas Waser

      Hi Jim. If you have a picture, please send it to me at I’ll do my best to identify it for you!

  • Sam

    I had 3 tiny baby snakes come from under the side walk. 4-5 inches long. They were flat and almost transparent with a tanish tinge of color. I looked through tons of snake id pictures and not sure what they are.

    • Thomas Waser

      Hi Sam. Did you get a photo? If so, I can identify it for you at and provide you with some more info. Most common species found burrowing are the eastern worm snake (this one seems to fit your description best but hard to say for certain) and the rough earth snake (check for a faint ring around the neck).

  • Michael Eubank

    My mom just saw a snake go under our house. It was four feet long and was the size of a quarter in diameter. It was either dark green or black with yellow circles around its body. Any suggestions on what it might be?

    • Thomas Waser

      Hi Michael, based on the size and description, I’m thinking eastern kingsnake. They are usually black with yellowish or white bands (or sometimes a chainlink pattern). Check it out; a great species to have around!

  • Molly

    Hey, my friend had a snake in her back yard. Tan with dark brown checkered back and a light line down it’s middle. Two or 2 1/2 feet long , pretty thick . Don’t think it is poisonous, but not afraid of me or my cat. Please get back to me as soon as you can. – Molly

  • Joy Llovo

    hello sir.. today I saw 3 snakes in my was inside my house or other two were outside..outside mean.. in my garden
    .. I’m not sure what they are but they looks similar to Gartersnake image… please sir help me… what should I do? I’m scared… do they harmful for my child and my wife…. please sir.. help me

  • Sabir Hossain

    hello sir..  today I saw 3 snakes in my was inside my house or other two were outside..outside mean.. in my garden
    .. I’m not sure what they are but they looks similar to Gartersnake image… please sir help me… what should I do? I’m scared… do they harmful for my child and my wife…. please sir..  help me.
    Name – Joy Llovo
    From – India,West Bengal

  • Amelie Krikorian

    I had a snake out sunning on my walkway today. He is about 18 inches long. I am thinking either a rat snake or garter snake, but his color is a little bit of each. I have a picture but I don’t see a way to attach it here. We have lots of little kids in the neighborhood, so I want to make sure! He appears to have both black and brown stripes on the length of his body, with some patterning on the brown.

  • Kelly Powell

    Good Eveing,
    While doing yard work this late afternoon I came across a little snake. The local snake guy advised me the snake was a cross breed of a non-venomous and venomous snake. I have pictures of the snake and have snake in a jar. I am very concern.

  • MARY Davis

    We have a lot of felled trees near the house and were clearing out a lot of them Friday when we came across a 10-12 inch very slim (less than 1/4 in diameter) tan snake with 2 parallel darker brown stripes and yellow creamy spots both sides back of head. It was very scared unable to decide which way to go, we let it scoot to a leaf pile. I’m thinking a common brown snake or some kind of ribbon. But it did seem to have a slight pinkish tan hue towards its underbelly. I’ve come across multiple copperheads so I get a little freaked by snakes.

  • Ava

    I found a brown and white long snake about the size of my whole leg. What type of snake is this.

  • Ann Gresham

    This morning I had a shiny black snake with white diamonds on its back. White underneath. I can’t remember seeing one like it before. What kind was it?

  • Patrick

    We have several black snakes that have a red ring around it’s neck. When seeing them and they see us, they seem to get in a attack mode. What do you think? Do all snakes have an attack defense. Love to know more of what we have. Thanks.

  • Lisa Faye Sensabaugh

    I have seen several snakes that are a grayish black with a red stripe running down both top sides they are only 2 feet long or a little under what kind could it be

  • Melinda Smucker

    I just found what I 99.9% believe is an Eastern King Snake in my asparagus patch. I have always heard that they are not a particularly aggressive snake, but this one came at me vibrating his tail through the mulch and didn’t back off when I backed up! It actually followed me a few feet and stayed focused on me until I was about 15 feet away! It was about 3 to 3 1/2 feet long, black with pale yellow bands in the typical chain link pattern. Do they tend to become aggressive at certain times of the year or is this one just a bully? Is he likely to move on voluntarily (I suspect it is living under/in the old shed right beside the bed) or is there something I need to do to make sure he is gone when it comes time to trim up my asparagus?

  • Matthew Drab

    I seen a couple of small gray snakes. I am hoping they are not venomous I have a small child and a small dog. I tried to email you via Gmail and kept getting a message that your email can not receive messages

  • Shelby

    My grandmother saw a snake about a foot long, with a gray body and darker gray, small spots. Any clue what it could be?

  • Priscilla Ann Hall

    I live in San Diego. Just now I was watering and there was a small (baby?)16″ long snake w/ a diamond (darks and lights) pattern in very definite browns browns my cat was investigating. Near the end of its body, there was a dark area, and then the tip was light in color (nascent rattles?). Was this a baby rattler (I hope not!)

  • Katie Emborski

    I saw a three foot long brown snake with a few brown lines running the length of it’s body. What kind of snake is that? It’s not one I’ve seen before and I’m having trouble identifying it though I can see it’s not poisonous. It slithered into a hole under my camellia bush. I took pictures I could share to help

  • marissa c

    my gpa runs a storage unit rental place, and one of the renters sent him a photo of a brown snake with 3 tan-ish stripes (one in the middle,and two on the sides) and black colored square/ diamond shapes. the guy sent him the pic and left for fear that it could bite him, can somebody tell me what it is?


    We found a snake in our garage about 2 feet long. It was rust colored with white vertical stripes. We’ve seen lots of snakes over the years but never this color. Any ideas?