Snakes in the Catskills: A primer

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in collaboration with the Catskill Science Collaborative, presented “Snakes in the Catskills: A Primer,” the latest in its lecture series, on June 5. Presenter John Vanek, is a zoologist at the New York Natural Heritage Program in Syracuse, NY. The snake above is a harmless Northern Brown Snake. They are known as a “gardener’s friend” because they eat snails, slugs, and worms.

John Vanek

Snakes in the Catskills: A primer

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in collaboration with the Catskill Science Collaborative, presented “Snakes in the Catskills: A Primer,” the latest in its lecture series, on June 5. Presenter John Vanek, is a zoologist at the New York Natural Heritage Program in Syracuse.

There are thirteen kinds of snakes in the Catskills. Only two are venomous. Vanek defined the Catskills area as including the counties of Greene, Delaware, Ulster, Sullivan, and Dutchess.

John Vanek said, “Snakes are just amazing creatures. They are very misunderstood.” He added, “The more we understand about them, the more we can explain to our friends, you don’t have to kill them every time you see them.” He said humans have an “ingrained fear of snakes,” which he tries to help with education about snakes, starting with children.

He went on to say about snakes, “They can think. They have personalities that you can measure. They form kinships with other snakes and some snakes are good mothers.”

Of the thirteen kinds of snakes, the most common are Garter snakes. He said the females are bigger than the males as with many snakes who give birth to live young. They eat worms, small amphibians, and mammals.

Garter snakes have two yellow stripes and come in a variety of colors.

They can grow to two to three feet long and live in meadows, wetlands, and woods.

The Northern Water Snake can grow to three to four feet and live in streams and rivers. They eat fish and frogs. They are more common in the Hudson River Valley. Vanek said water snakes “have a temper,” and will nip you touch them. They are not venomous.

The Black Rat Snake grows to five to six feet long and lives on a diet of small mammals and birds. They love to climb trees and live on cliffs and ledges at the eastern edge of the Catskills. Met on a trail, they stand their ground and may rear up and hiss.

The Eastern Milk Snake hunts mice, small mammals, and other snakes.

They were mistakenly believed to drink milk from cows. They are in meadows and farms and are nocturnal.

The Northern Ring-Necked Snake has a ring on its neck and a bright yellow belly. It grows to about ten to twelve inches. They eat salamanders and baby snakes. They live in moist, rocky areas.

The Northern Brown Snake can grow to twelve inches. “They are known as “the gardener’s friend” said Vanek because they eat slugs, snails, and worms. There has been a decline in their numbers for unknown reasons.

The Black Racer is a shiny black snake that eats other snakes. Its numbers are declining in the Catskills. It grows to three to five feet.

John Vanek, is a zoologist at the New York Natural Heritage Program.John Vanek

Another garden helper is the Northern Red Bellied Snake. It is a small snake ten to twelve inches long. It eats slugs and snails. Its habitat is woods and meadows. To escape predators, it “flips over to show its red belly,” hopefully scaring them, and zips away.

The Eastern Ribbon Snake lives on the edges of wetlands. It can grow to be two to three feet and about as “thick as string cheese.” It eats salamanders and frogs.

The Smooth Green snake lives in meadows and bogs. It eats caterpillars, spiders, and other insects. It is about ten to twelve inches in length. Its numbers have declined due to insecticides and habitat loss.

The Eastern Hog Nosed Snake burrows in the ground and favors toads for its meals. There are a wide variety of colors. It can grow to three to fourfeet. It can puff up its neck in a “bluff display” which makes it look like a cobra which causes people to kill it out of fear. There are no cobras in the United States.

The Copperhead is one of two venomous snakes in the Catskills and can grow to two to three feet long and can be as thick as a golf ball. They are uncommon but can be localized. They camouflage well in leaves or on trees and are hard to spot. They eat frogs, small mammals, and cicadas. They like rocky outcrops and forests.

The Timber Rattlesnake can grow to four to five feet and is as thick as a baseball. They like rocky outcrops and forests. They eat mice, shrews, chipmunks, and other small mammals.

Rattlesnakes will sit along a scent trail, often a log, with their head up, waiting up to three weeks for a small mammal. Once they inject venom, they wait for the animals to die, follow its scent trail, and eat it, “with no fuss,” said Vanek.

“Fangs are like hypodermic needles and super fragile,” said Vanek. If fangs are broken, they won’t be able to hunt. “Rattlesnakes don’t want to bite us. Biting is a last resort.”

Vanek then mentioned safety measures if you are out walking in the woods.

“Leave snakes alone.” He emphasized. “Don’t pick up a snake.”

Do not step over logs because a rattlesnake could be waiting on the other side, head up, for its prey. Instead step up on a log or rock and look over before putting your foot down.

Stay on trails because there is less risk of meeting a snake. Wear long pants and boots and carry a cell phone with emergency numbers.

If bitten by a snake, the only first aid he recommends is “to get to a hospital.” Take a picture of the snake if you can. “The treatment for any snake in New York is the same.”

Timber rattlesnakes have been declining in numbers due to habitat loss and fragmentation caused by building roads.

If you see a snake, you can be a citizen scientist and photograph the snake. Upload a picture to or

Latest News

Thru hikers linked by life on the Appalachian Trail

Riley Moriarty


Of thousands who attempt to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, only one in four make it.

The AT, completed in 1937, runs over roughly 2,200 miles, from Springer Mountain in Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest to Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park of Maine.

Keep ReadingShow less
17th Annual New England Clambake: a community feast for a cause

The clambake returns to SWSA's Satre Hill July 27 to support the Jane Lloyd Fund.


The 17th Annual Traditional New England Clambake, sponsored by NBT Bank and benefiting the Jane Lloyd Fund, is set for Saturday, July 27, transforming the Salisbury Winter Sports Association’s Satre Hill into a cornucopia of mouthwatering food, live music, and community spirit.

The Jane Lloyd Fund, now in its 19th year, is administered by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and helps families battling cancer with day-to-day living expenses. Tanya Tedder, who serves on the fund’s small advisory board, was instrumental in the forming of the organization. After Jane Lloyd passed away in 2005 after an eight-year battle with cancer, the family asked Tedder to help start the foundation. “I was struggling myself with some loss,” said Tedder. “You know, you get in that spot, and you don’t know what to do with yourself. Someone once said to me, ‘Grief is just love with no place to go.’ I was absolutely thrilled to be asked and thrilled to jump into a mission that was so meaningful for the community.”

Keep ReadingShow less
Getting to know our green neighbors

Cover of "The Light Eaters" by Zoe Schlanger.


This installment of The Ungardener was to be about soil health but I will save that topic as I am compelled to tell you about a book I finished exactly three minutes before writing this sentence. It is called “The Light Eaters.” Written by Zoe Schlanger, a journalist by background, the book relays both the cutting edge of plant science and the outdated norms that surround this science. I promise that, in reading this book, you will be fascinated by what scientists are discovering about plants which extends far beyond the notions of plant communication and commerce — the wood wide web — that soaked into our consciousnesses several years ago. You might even find, as I did, some evidence for the empathetic, heart-expanding sentiment one feels in nature.

A staff writer for the Atlantic who left her full-time job to write this book, Schlanger has travelled around the world to bring us stories from scientists and researchers that evidence sophisticated plant behavior. These findings suggest a kind of plant ‘agency’ and perhaps even a consciousness; controversial notions that some in the scientific community have not been willing or able to distill into the prevailing human-centric conceptions of intelligence.

Keep ReadingShow less