Massachusetts has 14 species of native snakes within its borders, notes the University of Massachusetts Amherst Natural Resources & Environmental Conservation site. Of these 14, two are venomous --- the copperhead and timber rattlesnake --- but extremely rare in the Bay State. Five species of snake are common in this New England state, with this handful of completely harmless serpents being those seen most by humans.
Common Garter Snakes
The common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) occurs statewide in Massachusetts in many sorts of habitats. This snake possesses toxic saliva that enables it to overpower its small prey, but it is not a threat to people. It may bite if you try to handle it, but the toxins precipitate a rash or burning feeling at most. Garter snakes live in forests, wetlands, near lakes, among the rocks and in residential areas. Averaging between 18 and 26 inches in length, garter snakes feature long yellow stripes along their backs, with a broad one in the middle of two narrow ones. Garter snakes emerge from their winter hibernation in early spring and they bask openly on rocks and stonewalls in the warm sun.
Readily recognized by the small yellow band about its neck, the ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus) seldom ventures out into the open. It feeds mainly on salamanders, earthworms and bugs, searching for food at night. Found in damp woodlands all over Massachusetts, the ringneck snake attains lengths of 27 inches, but most are in the range of 10 to 15 inches. This is a snake that sometimes makes its way into moist basements, but it is harmless, rarely biting when you handle it, but able to emit a rank, musky odor.
Only Nantucket County lacks the black racer (Coluber contrictor), a snake that sometimes grows to 6 feet. This subspecies of the North American racer is a fast, slate-black snake that can reach speeds of 3.6 mph. It has smooth scales and inhabits rural fields, brush and woodlands. Black racers feed on small mammal species, insects and other snakes. They will put up a fight if you try to catch them and have a habit of lifting up to look about their position. They shake their tails vigorously when frightened, giving the impression they possess a rattle like a rattlesnake. Black racers are active in the daytime and have the capacity to climb trees.
Water snakes (Nerodia sipedon) inhabit the wetlands, streams, ponds, lakes and brooks of Massachusetts, with only Dukes County having none of these excellent swimmers. Water snakes have a stout body and grows as long as 55 inches. People often mistake them for water moccasins. However, there is none of these poisonous serpents in Massachusetts: the water moccasin's range extends only as far north Virginia. Water snakes have variable colors, but most feature some sort of red-brown to blackish crossbands around the head area. Water snakes eat a huge array of creatures, including fish and lizards. They will ably defend themselves if you approach them and they are unable to flee.
The milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) is shy and hunts at night, usually sharing its range with the more visible garter snake. Identify this 2- to 3-foot long reptile by its red-brown blotches on its back, which stand out against a tan or gray body. Milk snakes are not dangerous, but their habit of living near barns leads to some fantastic myths about this Massachusetts reptile. In reality, milk snakes consume other snakes, frogs, fish, birds and small mammals. Contrary to legend, they do not suck the milk from cows; they are in a barn because that is where prey such as mice and rats live.