Brown snakes are also called Dekay’s brown snakes. Their scientific name is Storeria dekayi. The Storeria part of the name honors an 18th-century New England zoologist, David Humphreys Storer. Dekayi honors 19th-century naturalist James Ellsworth De Kay. De Kay is credited with collecting the first specimen of a brown snake on Long Island in New York.
These small snakes can be 10 inches to 21 inches long, but they are most often about 12 inches to 15 inches. They range from brown to gray to reddish in color with underbellies that are a pale yellow, brown or pink. They have a light stripe that runs down the center of their backs. The stripe is bordered with a zigzag pattern of small, dark spots. These snakes contain no venom and are completely harmless!
Brown snakes have been able to adapt to a variety of urban environments, so they are common throughout Illinois. They can be found in forests, prairies, parks, cemeteries, empty lots and cultivated fields. They will hide under the cover of leaf litter, rocks, logs and other objects.
Most of their hunting happens underground, so they depend heavily on their sense of smell. This is not done with noses. A snake’s forked tongue “smells” and gives information about what is around to sensory receptors inside the roofs of their mouths. They can also sense vibrations, and above the surface they depend on their eyesight.
These snakes brumate during the winter months. Brumation is the cold-blooded version of hibernation. For extra warmth, they may share their brumation spot with snakes of other species, including garter, red-bellied and smooth green snakes.
Brown snakes mate soon after they emerge in the springtime. The males will mate with several females, using their senses of smell and touch to communicate with each other. The females give birth to live babies in late summer. Depending on the size and age of the snake, a mother may have anywhere from three to 40 snakelets, but 10 to 14 is most common.
The little snakelets are born fully developed and able to fend for themselves. However, they often travel with their mothers for a while. They are adults and ready to mate once they are 2 to 3 years old.
Brown snakes eat soft-bodied critters, like earthworms, slugs and snails. They have specially adapted teeth and jaws that allow them to easily remove snails form their shells.
To protect themselves, brown snakes will flatten their bodies to try and appear larger. They will also release a stinky secretion with a musky odor to deter potential predators.
These snakes are important to the food chain because they are eaten by so many different animals. This includes other snakes, frogs, toads, birds, mammals and even large spiders. They may also be victims of passing vehicles, especially in the spring and fall when they are traveling to and from their brumation spots.
Although common, this snake can be very elusive. They are secretive and shy and spend most of their time underground or undercover. The best time to spot one may be just after it rains, when they escape their flooded hideouts. Be on the lookout for this little snake slithering along.
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.