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.
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.
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!
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.
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.