Let’s Learn about Rat Snakes!
At 644 acres, Frick Park is the largest city park in Pittsburgh. It is the only city park not fragmented by roads and is made up of various habitats, including large sections of contiguous woodland. These interior woodland spaces are unique and special habitats to find in a city. The diversity and size of habitats present in the park support and are home to an incredible amount of wildlife, many of which aren’t commonly seen in more developed parts of the city. This includes many species of birds like great-horned owls, mammals like the red fox, and reptiles like gray rat snakes.
Gray rat snakes (also called black rat snakes) are one of five snake species that call Frick Park home. They are by far the largest snakes native to our area, commonly reaching gargantuan lengths of six feet and occasionally over eight feet!
The other species of snakes found in Frick Park include:
- The Eastern garter snake (our regional subspecies of the common garter snake);
- The common or Northern watersnake;
- Dekay’s brown snake;
- The Eastern milksnake.
Naming animals is something there’s been much debate about in the world of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians), but regardless of the name, these five species have been living in Frick Park for quite some time.
While gray rat snakes are large, they are among the most docile snake species in our area. When they encounter humans in their home, they typically are unphased or try to avoid interaction by slithering away. Gray rat snakes pose no threat to humans. They are nonvenomous and feed primarily on small mammals like mice and rats and prey on birds and their eggs or nestlings. They are the most arboreal snake in Pennsylvania, spending a lot of time climbing trees searching for food or shelter. Sometimes you can even find their shed skins dangling from the branches of trees!
Sharing our city with snakes like the gray rat snake provides numerous benefits to humans. Aside from gracing the parks with their serpentine beauty, they help control rodent populations. Rodents are the primary food source for deer ticks in our area, and higher rodent populations can lead to higher tick populations and increased spread of Lyme’s disease. Having predators like snakes around where we live, work, and play provides health benefits to people in this way.
Finding gray rat snakes in Frick Park is an indication of the quality of habitat in the park. Predators like snakes, foxes, and owls can only thrive in ecosystems that support the prey they need. We know we are doing a great job taking care of our park spaces when sightings of these kinds of wildlife increase. While rat snakes are somewhat common in Frick Park, they often struggle to survive in urban areas. The biggest threat to gray rat snakes in Pittsburgh is misunderstanding, fear, and aggression from humans.
For many people, finding yourself face to face with a gray rat snake in one of your city parks might cause an intense gut reaction – repulsion is often the norm with snakes, worms, and other animals that move without legs. It’s my hope that we can learn to move beyond the impulse towards fear and come to a place of understanding. While a gray rat snake may look scary, when you consider the benefits we gain by living alongside them in peace, they truly are our friends. These gentle giants hope to continue living among us and looking after us, but they need our respect and kindness to continue to thrive.
Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Naturalist Educator
Note: if you find snakes in the wild, it is recommended that you observe them from a distance and avoid picking them up. Surprisingly for some, this has more to do with the likelihood of you injuring the snake than of the snake injuring you. Snakes prefer to be left on the ground or in the trees where they are, and many are cooperative subjects for photographs and for stories of exciting finds in your city parks. Please share your animal sightings from the parks - tag us @pittsburghparks!