How to Identify a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi)

Today’s blog post was inspired by the karma-themed TV show My Name Is Earl.

I know some people would rather pay their taxes twice than be nice to snakes, but I owe this mundanely-named brown snake family some good publicity on account of I killed their brother.

Or sister. Or both. Specifically, a couple little specimens of Storeria dekayi. It happened in two separate garden accidents, many years ago, but I still regret it. Maybe I will feel better if I convince a snake-hater that these little guys are as useful in the garden as earthworms. Since the adults max out at only 12″ long, they aren’t much bigger than an earthworm, either.

Photo Caption: Brown snakes may have a boring name, but it is pretty accurate. If only there weren't so many other brown colored snakes, too...

This is not even close to the same as an eastern brown snake. There go those confusing common names again! As far as snakes go, I can’t think of a more harmless species. Brown snakes have no poison and their best defense against grabby humans is to pee on them.

Not very imposing!

Guess what? Brown snakes are brown — a muddy, grayish brown with a lighter band of brown along the spine bordered by tiny black dots. The underbelly is a pale beige or tan.

In South Carolina, two subspecies can be found. The “midland” specimen (Storeria dekayi wrightorum) may fool people into thinking it is a young rattlesnake. It has connecting lines between the black dots that create a slight diamond pattern. For the “northern” subspecies (Storeria dekayi dekayi), the black spots have fewer connections which creates a more random pattern.

Both versions of this species give live birth.

Photo Caption: Some people may think the spots on a brown snake looks like a diamond pattern. But brown snakes are not baby rattlesnakes!

In reality, this snake is only dangerous to garden pests like snails and slugs. They prefer soft-bodied invertebrates and spend most of their time burrowing through leaf litter and debris in order to find them. Their digging aerates soil and their droppings help fertilize it.

Brown snakes are most common in areas with plenty of cover. Gardeners can encourage (or discourage) them based on the amount of compost, mulch, brushy plantings, stray flower pots, or other hiding places provided in the yard. I tend to leave some of these things on purpose to create habitat. The presence of reptiles and amphibians is the sign of a healthy ecosystem — be proud if you see them in your landscape!

Photo Caption: Humans are safe from brown snakes but they may not be safe from you -- handle their fragile bodies with care!

If brown snakes have a downside, it is that their hiding gets them into trouble. Both of my previously mentioned fatal garden accidents involved snakes I couldn’t see. Because of those experiences, I now flush out my overwintered hoses before I cap them with a spray nozzle. I also look inside hollow plant stems before I prune.

It’s important to remember that snakes hide because they don’t want you to find them any more than you want to find them. If you spook a snake, step back and wait — they’ll leave.

Photo Caption: Brown snakes rarely get larger than 12" long.

Brown snakes are commonly confused with juvenile rat snakes. One sure way to tell them apart is the belly. Black rat snakes have a checkerboard pattern on their belly instead of a solid pale color. Check out this blog post on how to identify juvenile rat snakes.

Still didn’t find it? This is a great link to identify South Carolina snakes. Most of these snakes can also be found in surrounding southern states.

Eliza Lord

I'm a Greenville, SC native (the Appalachian foothills) who wears the hats of Greenville Master Gardener & Upstate Master Naturalist. I love to write about food and sustainability.

15 thoughts on “How to Identify a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi)”

  1. Mark Willis
    Twitter: marksvegplot
    - April 4, 2012 10:25 am

    Sorry, but I’m a hater of all types of snake, whether poisonous or not! I find them very sinister, and if I saw one I wouldn’t hang around long enough to check whether its belly was checkered or plain.
    Mark Willis´s last blog post ..Moss

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - April 4, 2012 10:30 am

      I have no problem with people running away when they see a snake. Even if it doesn’t make much rational sense to me. I just think it is lame when someone feels the need to chop off their heads just for existing.

      Sorry that they give you the heebie jeebies, though. I get that way about sponges left in the sink. Pretty sure the sponge isn’t going to kill me, either — but I still don’t want to touch it ever ever again.
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Identify a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi)

  2. Karin/Southern Meadows - April 4, 2012 9:24 pm

    The other day I opened our basement door and a small snake almost hit me on the head. I thought it was a baby rat snake however, perhaps it was one of these (I will check out the site you referred). I’ve never seen this brown snake before. I will have to keep a lookout for them. We usually have some rat snakes hanging around our property which I don’t mind. I just don’t really want to see any venomous snakes.
    Karin/Southern Meadows´s last blog post ..A Black Widow Encounter

  3. Janet, The Queen of Seaford - April 5, 2012 8:28 pm

    We had a snake in the road last week, Eastern Corn Snake. Since I was walking all three dogs I gave it wide berth. Interesting post, I need to learn my snakes.
    Janet, The Queen of Seaford´s last blog post ..Good Karma, Good Luck, Good Mojo….or What?

  4. Lisa and Robb - April 7, 2012 4:32 pm

    Count me among the snake-lovers! I think they’re magnificent fascinating creatures, and I value their place in a varied ecosystem.
    Lisa and Robb´s last blog post ..Happy Hoppy

  5. Donna - April 7, 2012 5:39 pm

    I just avoid snakes mostly. I have had a fear of them since I was small, and it is well warranted too. I know there are plenty harmless ones. I have garter snakes living in my yard because of all the masonry, and I just kinda step around them. I accidentally mowed over a few too and felt really bad.
    Donna´s last blog post ..No Flower Shots, Please

  6. Formation Anglais - January 20, 2013 12:05 pm

    I am scared of snakes. Looking at this website is a good therapy for me

  7. Ryan Kennedy - May 18, 2013 6:47 am

    I found two small brown snakes which have diomand patterns on them recently.I wasn’t sure if they were poisonous but now after seeing the above information I’m sure they’re brown snakes.I think I’ll keep them for a while.They’re surprisingly docile.Thanks for the info.

  8. Amy Gamber - July 15, 2013 8:36 pm

    You saved a life tonight!
    A small snake crawled out of my beds and my two year old nearly stepped on it. My husband captured it in my mop bucket so we could identify it. (I feared it was poisonous and wanted to determine if we should look for others for our sons safety).
    We found your blog doing an image search. Great information! I never knew what these little brown snakes were because I’ve never found a site that described the connected black dots in quite the same way you did. Thank you.
    We put the spade aside and instead released the little fella to continue aerate and get rid of those annoying slugs!

  9. Pingback: Snake Species of Ohio at a Glance | TrekOhio

  10. roxy smith - November 15, 2013 9:38 pm

    I recently received one of these loveable little brown snakes as a gift. his name is bill brown and he is marvelous. he is a great addition to my pythons and has finally quit using the bathroom on me when I hold him. gotta love em all

  11. Carol Storm - May 20, 2014 12:08 pm

    My cat has delivered me 48 baby snakes this spring, I just found out they are not poisonous, I hope, but to be on the safe side I catch them in a bucket and relocate them, is this OK?

  12. P Hicks - July 17, 2014 3:55 pm

    We came across one of these under some shrubbery we were pruning back this morning. At first glance, we wanted to be sure it wasn’t venomous, but we left it alone and thanks to your description and photos I was able to identify it as a Midland Brown Snake, and to feel good about leaving it alone. Thanks.

  13. mary greene - July 22, 2014 11:19 am

    Thank you for the information and photos so I could identify the Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi)which visited me in the garden yesterday. The snake and I had a pleasant conversation and I apologized for disturbing his/her siesta.

  14. Sharon Belger - December 14, 2014 3:27 pm

    We have had 9 brown snakes in our house and 2 in garage since April 2014. The last one last night Dec. 13. We do not have trash or brush around our yard. This is driving me nuts. I am very concerned as to what is going on. We also have 3 cats and a dog. Any suggestion? .

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