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What is a Chicken Snake?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Chicken snakes are not one particular species or type of snake. Instead, this name is applied to several different kinds of reptiles that are nonvenomous and tend to feast on eggs, rats, and small birds. Along with referring to this group of snakes as chicken snakes, there are several other common names applied to the group, including rat snakes, corn snakes, and pine snakes.

The chicken snake is found in various locations around North America. Some species are relatively small in length and diameter, although it is possible for a chicken snake to grow to over seven feet long. Some types will constrict their prey before consumption. Most will coil and attack when they feel cornered or threatened in any way. While their bite is not venomous in most cases, it is usually extremely painful.

There are essentially five species of snake that are identified as a chicken snake. The eastern rat snake, known as elaphe alleghaniensis, is common along the eastern seaboard of the United States and parts of Canada. Elaphe guttata or the corn snake is found in the southeastern US and also parts of the midwest area. Black rat snakes, or elaphe obsoleta, are commonly found in the Great Lakes area, especially in parts of Indiana and Illinois. The gray rat snake, or elaphe spiloides, is very similar to the black rat snake and tends to inhabit rocky areas and open plains. In highly wooded areas in the general vicinity of the border of the United States and Canada, pituophis m melanolcucus, or the northern pine snake is often found.

Many reptiles in this family share several characteristics. First, many of them will constrict prey or attempt to coil around anyone who poses a threat to the snake. All of them will bite when threatened, and are capable of leaving behind an open wound that is extremely painful. Several of these snakes will enjoy small animals such as rats or other prey with as much relish as bird and chicken eggs. Some of the snakes are excellent climbers, allowing them to navigate with ease through trees and swallow bird eggs from the nest.

Because these snakes often consumes rodents, some farmers in rural communities prefer to not kill the snakes. Instead, the chicken snake found near a hen house is captured and released in a wooded area that is far removed from the hens and their eggs. In addition, many farmers will make the effort to seal the chicken houses so that the ability of the snake to enter the hen house is reduced.

What Does a Chicken Snake Look Like?

Chicken snakes don’t have one singular look. Surprisingly, the term encompasses more than just one kind of snake. Chicken snakes are a category of snakes that share one important characteristic: they all like to eat chicken eggs and small chicks. These snakes will also eat the eggs of other animals, rats, mice, and amphibians. Chicken snakes are generally one of five different snakes, depending on where they are located in the United States.

Eastern Rat Snake

  • Non-venomous
  • Can grow up to seven feet long
  • Shiny black scales on the back with light black scales on the stomach
  • Throat and chin area are white
  • The head is broad, but the body is slender
  • Found in Connecticut to South Carolina and the midwest
  • Constrictor snakes

Corn Snake

  • Non-venomous
  • Can grow up to four feet long
  • Orange, reddish-brown, gray, checkered pattern on body scales
  • Stripe extends from the back of the eye to the body
  • Slender head and body
  • Found in southern New Jersey through the Florida Keys
  • Constrictor snakes

Black Rat Snake

  • Non-venomous
  • Can grow longer than six feet
  • Dull, black scales on the back with lighter white-ish scales on the belly
  • The throat area is white-ish
  • The head is broader than the body
  • Found in most states from the midwest through the east
  • Constrictor snakes

Gray Rat Snake

  • Non-venomous
  • Can grow up to eight feet or more
  • Black or dark brown with dark gray blotches on back
  • The belly is white or dark yellow with a checkerboard pattern
  • Head is more slender than body
  • Found in most states from the midwest through the east
  • Constrictor snakes

Northern Pine Snake

  • Non-venomous
  • Can grow up to eight feet or more
  • Gray-brown to rusty brown with black body splotches
  • The belly can be cream or yellow to tan colored
  • The head is smaller than its body size and resembles a tortoise head
  • Found in the eastern half of the United States
  • Constrictor snakes

Chicken Snake vs Rat Snake

Chicken snakes and rat snakes are synonymous terms, which means they are the same thing. All chicken snakes will eat rats, and all rat snakes will eat baby chickens. Remember, the classification of chicken snake isn’t one kind of snake but several snakes that fall into one category.

All of the snakes are adept at eating small animals that are a nuisance for farmers, aside from the small chicks and their eggs. However, their good deeds outweigh their bad, so farmers will simply relocate the snakes and patch up the coop rather than eliminate them. Because of the locale of their dining preferences, you might hear chicken snakes referred to as rat snakes or:

  • Barn snakes
  • Corn snakes
  • Pine snakes
  • Lizard snakes
  • Mousers

Are Chicken Snakes Poisonous?

None of the five snake varieties categorized as chicken snakes are poisonous, and they are instead classified as non-venomous constrictors. To be a non-venomous constrictor means that the snakes squeeze their prey to death. Once the prey is lifeless, the snake can take its time ingesting the mouse or lizard without having to worry about it scurrying away.

Some people are unsure about how to tell if a snake is venomous or non-venomous. Not everyone knows how to identify a snake by its colors or markings or the size of its head. If they do, it is still possible to get mixed up when emotions and adrenaline run high. One easy way to determine if a snake is venomous or not is by its pupils.

Before you scoff and say that no one is getting close enough to the snake to determine the details of its pupils, you will find that if you are ever in a staredown with a snake, you will likely not ever, not even for one second, ever take your eyes off of it. You and the snake before you will have the most intense staring contest of your lives. During this staring contest, you might be able to determine whether or not the snake is venomous.

  • Vertical pupils like a cat’s eyes are venomous
  • Round pupils like a human’s eyes are non-venomous

Just because a snake is non-venomous, however, doesn’t mean it won’t bite when threatened. No matter if there is poison involved or not, snake bites are painful and alarming. For best results, avoid approaching snakes if at all possible unless you have professional guidance. In the best of scenarios, you will never be close enough to a snake to determine its pupil shape or within range of a painful bite.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including All Things Nature, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon275099 — On Jun 15, 2012

There's only two kinds of snakes: live ones and good ones.

By anon174383 — On May 10, 2011

I was helping a friend who had 10 geese and ducks he had ordered. Yesterday we found one dead beside a snake of about four feet long in their pen. The young goose at the time was the size of a Bantam hen and I would not have thought a snake would try to take them on. Live and learn!

We are in Pamlico County, N.C. (extreme eastern part of the state) and we have lots and lots of snakes abut the acreage. We killed the killer snake as we believed it might come back. Wondering if sulphur around the edges might work as I read on another forum. Anyone with ideas?

By anon93806 — On Jul 05, 2010

I usually just let snakes be. Today, however, we found a 6' rat snake in a cage with 10 guinea keets. three were eaten, five were dead, two survived. Not only did this snake create a financial loss for us (cost of keets, food, and the amount of insects they would've eaten that prevents us from having to use chemicals), but well.. put yourself in the keets' position.

If you let them go they come back because they know where the easy meal is. But this one won't.

Brain damage and broken bones you say? Take solace that the now headless snake is providing sustenance for fire ants and other smaller animals.

By anon92469 — On Jun 28, 2010

We have a large bird cage with 15 white dove with small screen around it. It is a nice bird cage. We have had it for years. All of a sudden we are getting snakes in it and they are eating the doves. We have already found six in the past few weeks. This weekend they killed three baby doves. I am getting very angry. The screen is tiny. I cannot believe the snake is making it out after eating the dove. Is there anything we can put around the cage to deter the snake from coming into the cage? Please give us ideas. I love my dove. I also love snakes, but am getting very upset with them now. Thanks so much. The Hopsons

By anon88047 — On Jun 02, 2010

we found a chicken snake in our house and i was told that when you see one snake there is always another close by. i was wondering if that is true because i have three small kids.

By anon45612 — On Sep 18, 2009

do not toss snakes. this will cause serious brain damage to the snake and could cause breaking in the bones. thank you.

By anon35762 — On Jul 07, 2009

I found a snake in my house recently, and I wonder if it was a chicken snake. I think it was very young, whatever it was. I just scooped it up with the end of a broom, and tossed it into the woods behind the house.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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