We saw the first snake of the season a week or two ago, the Eastern yellow-bellied racer, commonly known around here as a “blue racer.” In other areas, depending on color variations, it’s called the black, brown, or green racer; its under-belly is white, tan, or yellow and it may be twenty to sixty inches long, or from a foot-and-a-half to five feet. This speedy little snake (also called a “runner” in some areas) sleeps at night and hunts during daylight—which is why it’s so often seen—and it lives practically everywhere in the Great Plains. In South Dakota, it’s found only west of the Missouri River.
If you see one, feel free to leap out of its way, but don’t hurt it. These are non-venomous snakes which eat small rodents (voles!), frogs, toads, lizards, crickets and moths, and other snakes. They occasionally eat small birds such as finches or sparrows, especially those that nest on the ground. But the racer can climb trees well and occasionally raid bird nests for eggs or baby birds.
This last fact may explain to me, sixty years later, why one day when I was walking in the cedar windbreak, I felt a tickle on my neck. I looked down inside my open-necked shirt to see a small blue snake lying against my belly, its head raised, tongue flicking. Without much thought, I yanked my shirt untucked, and the snake slipped to the ground and zipped away. When I described it to my father, he called it a blue racer. I’ve never forgotten the not-unpleasant sensation of that small body against my stomach.
Despite the scientific name of the snake, Coluber constrictor, these snakes do not really employ constriction. They generally subdue their prey by pinning it down with a coil or two of their body length. Smaller prey is swallowed alive. Blue racers are curious and have excellent vision, so you may sometimes see one raising its head above the grass as it crawls to see what’s in the neighborhood.
The snakes’ predators are large mammals and bigger birds such as hawks. Racers use their speed to escape being eaten, but if caught, they bite hard and often as they try to escape, writhing, defecating and releasing foul odors. I was lucky I didn’t try to capture the one that slid down my shirt.
Racers have also been known to rattle their tails among dry leaves to sound like rattlesnakes, a habit which could get them killed. A friend who didn’t know this fact stepped out her door the very day she read the first draft of this article and saw a blue racer; then she heard rattling, and realized the snake was temporarily blocked from escape by some wire and was vibrating its tail in dried grass to warn her off. Read it, see it.
Racers are common in residential neighborhoods in warmer states, and may live near water, but also in brush, trash piles, roadsides and swamps. Most types of racers seem to prefer open, grassland habitat where they can use their good eyesight and speed, and they stay near cover where they can hide.
The eastern yellow-bellied racer mates between April and June. A month later the female lays 3 to 30 eggs in a hidden nest in a log, or under a rock, or in an abandoned rodent burrow. Surprisingly, they’ve also been known to lay eggs in a communal site where snakes from other species have also laid eggs. The eggs hatch in early fall. Until they reach maturity, in about two years, the young snakes have dark blotches along the back with spotted sides and bellies, decorations that make them resemble rattlesnakes at first glance.
Remember: snakes generally do us more good than harm; this little guy may be eating those voles that are eating the roots of your plants. Don’t poison the voles; find a blue racer. And if you think of killing a snake, look for rattles on the tail. South Dakota is home to only one venomous snake: the prairie rattlesnake. If you see no rattles, chances are that the snake is harmless. Leave it to its business of keeping rodents under control.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom
# # #