Most New York City snake encounters–at least those that make the news–seem to be with exotic imported species, mainly escaped or abandoned pets. In fact, there are 17 or 18 species of snakes that are native to New York State, and many (though not all) of them may be found in vacant lots or parkland within city limits. Virtually all of the naturally occurring local species are harmless; two of the state’s three poisonous species, the Massasauga (a type of rattlesnake) and the Timber Rattler, only inhabit isolated areas far upstate. The more common Copperhead, a pit viper, has been reported in the city in the past, but not in recent years. It is always best to steer clear of any snake that can’t be positively identified, though, because escaped foreign species could be venomous. Also, all wild snakes are protected in New York State and may not be caught.
There are several common species that it is possible to find in the city:
Northern Water Snakes have been observed in the Bronx on the grounds of the New York Botanical Garden and Bronx Zoo. This common and harmless species is frequently mistaken for the poisonous Cottonmouth, which actually does not inhabit New York State. The Northern Water Snake is common in water bodies and wetlands throughout the state. It is typically dark brown to black with lighter-colored bands and splotches that are more easily visible in younger specimens. It can reach a maximum length of more than 40 inches and is known to sometimes be aggressive, although it is not poisonous.
Copperheads are related to rattlesnakes, although they do not have a rattle. Interestingly, they sometimes shake their tails when threatened, which can produce a rattling sound in dry leaves. These poisonous snakes have a distinctive triangular head with a striking difference between the broad jaw and slender neck. They can be identified by the light bands on their skin, which are broadest along the spine and narrower down the sides.
The harmless Milk Snake is the subject of numerous misconceptions, such as the idea that they suck milk from cows, because of their habit of frequenting barns. This boldly patterned snake preys on the rodents often found in barns, as well as on other snakes.
The Black Rat Snake is the state’s largest species, reaching lengths of up to eight feet. Given its large size and preferred habitat of rocky cliffs and slopes, it is not likely to be found in the city. It feeds on birds and small mammals, killing its prey by constriction.
The Northern Ring-Necked Snake is a small (10-15 inches in length), shy species that inhabits leaf litter in moist wooded areas and can often be found under rocks or fallen logs. It has a grayish back with a yellow-orange underside and neck ring. It feeds on small invertebrates such as insects and worms and small amphibians.
The Eastern Hognose Snake is easily identified by its upturned snout, although its skin patterns are variable. It can be yellow, brown, green, or black, patterned with large dark spots, and can grow as long as 46 inches. The Hognose is characterized by its distinctive defensive behavior. When threatened, it sucks in air, spreads its head and neck skin like a cobra, and hisses, as if about to strike. After this, it often rolls over and plays dead. In spite of this frightening display, Hognose snakes hardly ever bite people. The Hognose most frequently preys on toads, and supplements this diet with other small vertebrates and invertebrates.
The Northern Brown Snake is a small brown snake 10-13 inches long. Its skin is patterned with a light central stripe bordered by two rows of dark brown or black dots along the back; the belly is light-colored and edged with dark dots. It is often found under rocks, logs, or boards in vacant lots where it feeds on earthworms, slugs, and snails.
The Common Garter Snake can be various shades of gray, brown, or green, and typically has three long light-colored stripes along its entire length. The underside is lighter in color than the back. It is one of the most common snakes in North American and ranges from Canada to Florida, and from the East to West coasts, in a wide range of habitats. They are usually not large, but can grow as long as five feet. They eat fish, amphibians, and earthworms and are eaten by many larger predators, including hawks, crows, snapping turtles, raccoons, and foxes. In cold climates, they hibernate in large groups in winter. Although they are not poisonous, their bite can produce a mild reaction in humans. They give birth to live young, rather than laying eggs like most snakes.
Two other snakes that can be found all around New York State are the Green and Redbelly snakes, both small, slender species that feed on insects, spiders, earthworms and slugs. The Green snake is colored green all over, while the Redbelly is dark above with a bright underside.