There’s A Snake In The Chicken House!

Watching Nature: Backyard And BeyondBy Jim Renfro

Texas Master Naturalist
Contributing Columnist

TEXAS RAT SNAKE (Photo by Jim Renfro)TEXAS RAT SNAKE (Photo by Jim Renfro)The Lady of Birdsong Hill raises chickens for eggs and for other things. Last year she bought a state-of-the-art, commercially built hen house termed a chicken tractor. It has wheels, can be moved around and truly is ideal for a small flock of layers.

However, that house, the high tech feed and other stuff brings the unit cost of an egg for breakfast in at about $2 each. Plus, a couple of our hens are in retirement and produce no eggs; never name your chickens!

With only five active laying hens, measuring production is easy; it is usually about six eggs per week per laying hen. When production drops off, like to one total per day, some outside factor must be at work.

Recently, production yield was down to one or two per day, for about three days. On the fourth day, the head hen (spouse) announced "there's a snake in the chicken tractor behind the nest boxes." Yes, there sure was a snake in the chicken tractor behind the nest boxes.

After extraction from the hen house with a modified one-iron, alive, the intruder was identified as a Texas Rat Snake. This species is common in our area, and a known carnivorous predator, rodents and the like. An agile climber, Rat Snakes are particularly famous for raiding bird nests, even high in trees. Non-venomous; they are not dangerous to humans.

Rat Snakes can and will bite in self-defense; their teeth are small and are designed for swallowing prey (like our eggs). Texas Rat Snake is probably the one we colloquially refer to as "chicken snake". They are long, slender, have a rounded head, and are generally dark with a blotchy, cross hatch body pattern. Six feet in length is about the longest I've seen.

Our captive was a young one, a little over 3 feet long and maybe an inch in diameter. It was far too small to harm the hens but had been consuming eggs.

Later, the snake was relocated far away from our place; it was not killed. The very next day a second and larger Rat Snake...almost 6 feet...was captured entering the chicken tractor through the one inch mesh, welded-wire side walls. Rat Snake Number 2 likewise left the property and egg production was restored to normal.

Another truly harmless species encountered around that same time was an Eastern Hognose Snake. This one was about 24 inches, heavy set and was found under some shrubs.

Our specimen was almost black, had a red belly and discernable cross-hatch pattern on its back. Its head was the width of the body and featured an up-turned "hog" shaped nose. Hognose snakes can also be much lighter in color. When moved with the snake hook, this guy became agitated. It hissed and spread its head as we see cobras do in nature shows. Hognose Snakes will also play dead when attacked. They feed primarily on toads. Without a dangerous bite capability, this species defends itself by acting mean followed by faking death. Hognose Snake is sometimes mistakenly called a Puff Adder, which is a dangerous, venomous species native to North Africa.

It is not my intention to be a snake groupie (herpephile), or even their cheerleader. Most people become uncomfortable when snakes are near.

However, snakes have a very important place in the environment, and on our place. It is sometimes necessary to dispatch venomous snakes, near people, such as coral snake, copperhead and cottonmouth.

When confronted with any snake, stand clear, try to identify, move away and leave them unharmed to fulfill their niche in nature.