Snakes are legless members of the taxonomic class of animals known as reptiles. New York state is home to 17 snake species of various sizes and colors, the majority of which are harmless to humans. Though oft-feared, some of the state's snakes help keep pests in check, including rodents and insects.
New York is home to the aptly named smooth green, copperhead, brown and red-bellied snakes. Ring-necked snakes are distinguished by a yellow collar-like marking; eastern worm snakes resemble earthworms. A large, black snake found in New York is either a black rat snake or an eastern racer. Both can be up to 6 feet long; the latter has smooth scales.
Massasauga snakes are gray to light brown and have rows of black splotches. Northern water snakes are heavy-bodied with sorrel splotches against a lighter color. The slender milk snake is grayish and has sorrel splotches with black edges. Common garters vary in color, but most are dark green and have three light stripes, as do short-headed garter snakes. Timber rattlesnakes can be solid black or yellow with dark, V-shaped bands.
The rare queen snake ranges from dark brown to tan with a yellow stripe on each side. Ribbon snakes, distinguished by long, thin tails, also have yellow stripes on dark bodies. The thick Hognose snake has an upturned snout.
The timber rattlesnake, massasauga and copperhead species are venomous. Though these species are rare, seek immediate medical attention if you believe you have been bitten by a venomous snake.
Common garter snakes inhabit lawns, fields and woodlands, while short-headed garters prefer meadows. Black rat snakes make their way into barns, as do milk snakes. Eastern racers occur in woodlands, grasslands, fields and wetland edges. Red-bellied snakes are found in woodlands and wetlands. Timber rattlesnakes and copperheads occur in hardwood forests. Massasaguas winter in wetlands and summer in fields and the outskirts of woodlands. Ring-necked snakes occur in rocky, wooded environments and forest edges. Hognose snakes favor sand, while smooth green snakes prefer grass. Northern water, queen and ribbon snakes live in aquatic environments. Brown snakes are found under rocks and logs; worm snakes are subterranean.
Milk and black rat snakes subdue their prey — rodents — by constriction. The venomous snakes also eat rodents. The diet of queen snakes is composed primarily of crayfish, while hognose snakes feed on toads. Northern water and ribbon snakes consume mainly frogs. Worms comprise much of the diets of several New York snakes, including the brown, common garter, short-headed garter, ring-necked and eastern worm species. Smooth green snakes subsist on crickets, grasshoppers and caterpillars. Newborn red-bellies eat ant eggs and invertebrates; adults prefer worms, insects, slugs and snails. Eastern racers have a diverse diet of insects, frogs, birds and eggs, other snakes and small mammals.
Several harmless New York snakes resemble venomous species that occur elsewhere. The milk snake, once erroneously believed to milk cows, is mistaken for the venomous spotted adder of Europe and Asia. Northern water snakes are taken for venomous cottonmouths, also non-native.