Deer in Spring Landscape

Snakes in the Basement? Don't Panic

[a drawing by W.H. Henry of a snake under a rug]

When autumn arrives, snakes start showing up in basements and other places where they may not be wanted, looking for places to hibernate. Snakes normally hibernate in crevices under rocks, trees, stream banks and occasionally in buildings. Sometimes when they crawl into basements and ground floors of buildings they can't find their way out.

"When situations like this occur, we want people to remember that snakes can be removed from a building safely without killing them," explains Glenn Therres of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Service. "Believe it or not, snakes are just as afraid of people, as some people are afraid of them. The person who unexpectedly finds a snake in a basement or building need not panic."

Most snakes in Maryland are non-venomous and can be removed simply and easily, without harming the snake or person. Several methods can be used. One is to sweep the snake into a bucket or empty garbage can. Another method is to pick the snake up with a rake or broom handle and place it in a bucket or empty trash can. Then take it outside and let it go at a reasonable distance from the building, releasing it into a forest or field. There is no need to kill the snake. In fact, it is against state law to intentionally kill native wildlife without a permit.

Snakes are an integral part of the environment. As predators, they feed on mice, rats, insects and other pest species. They are also prey for hawks, herons, raccoons, and other predators. Snakes are an important part of the food chain.

Snake identification can be difficult, so one should use caution when removing the snake. Unless the person is familiar with handling snakes, it is best to pick it up with something other than one's hands. To the inexperienced observer, all snakes appear to have heads distinctly wider than their bodies (which is how venomous snakes are often described) and therefore might be incorrectly thought to be venomous.

The snakes most commonly found in basements in Maryland are black rat snakes, ring-necked snakes and garter snakes. Adult black rat snakes are black on top with white bellies, and can be as long as four or five feet in length. Young black rat snakes are usually less than 12 inches in length, have a gray or tan back with black or dark brown spots distributed randomly from its neck to tail. When startled, black rat snakes will rattle their tail, mimicking rattlesnakes. Though black rat snakes can bite, they are non-venomous.

Ring-necked snakes are small (usually less than 12 inches in length), with dark brown or black backs and a cream-colored ring around its neck. Its belly is pink or orange in color. Garter snakes have brown to greenish colored backs, with three tan stripes running from the head to tail. Some garter snakes have small dark spots instead of stripes. A few other species have been found in buildings in Maryland.

There are only two species of venomous snakes native to Maryland. Copperheads are found statewide. They have cream, beige or orange colored backs, with dark brown hour-glass shaped bands going from side to side. Young copperheads have a yellow tipped tail. Timber rattlesnakes are the other venomous species in Maryland. They are only found in the mountains. There are two color phases of timber rattlesnakes. Yellow backs with dark brown or black spots are the more common variety. Dark brown or black is the other color. Both have distinct rattles on their tails. The chances of finding either species in a basement or building are slim, though if the building is in wooded areas, especially in the mountains, it is possible.

A Guide to Maryland's Herps - Reptiles & Amphibians

Toll-free in Maryland: 1-877-620-8DNR, ext. 8540

Drawing by W.H. Henry