: Hello. I opened the door this afternoon
: to let my 7 year old go out and play
: and there was a snake on the steps of
: the log cabin where we live. Normally,
: I don't freak out about snakes, but I
: can't identify it and now I am freaking
: out. It was relatively small and it
: was eating a skink lizard and was
: rolling the skink over and over. We
: thought it was kind of cool and watched
: it eat. I thought it was just a black
: snake. However, when it was done eating
: and we were going back inside (after
: keeping a healthy distance from it to
: begin with) it coiled up and it's tail
: starting shaking. I didn't see any
: rattles, though, which is what is
: really puzzling me. It was solid black
: (no pattern that I could see) with I
: think a white underbelly and it had a
: triangular shape small head (not that
: that appears to make any difference to
: the identification). I have looked at
: all the pictures I can find of timber
: rattlers, eastern rattlers and it
: doesn't look like any of them or the
: bull snakes. It wasn't very large,
: maybe a 1 feet in length and it wasn't
: very thick either and was having some
: difficulty getting the skink in its
: mouth without the skink pulling back
: out. But, I would really like to know
: what it is and if it is venomous as I
: have a little boy that really wants to
: go back outside and play. I don't want
: to him to come up on it and if I can
: determine where it would normally like
: to hang out, we will stay away from it.
: We live in southwestern Virginia if
: that makes any difference in the
: identification. Thanks for any help.
If it was all black and eating a Skink, it was a Black Racer. They don't have the ability to constrict as well as a Rat Snake or a King Snake, so they have to wrestle their prey.
Many harmless snakes will shake the tail when alarmed; this is not particular to Rattlesnakes. Indeed all their relatives do it (Cottonmouth, Copperhead, etc), plus almost all the harmless snakes including Racers, Rat Snakes, King Snakes and Pine (Bull) snakes do this. If the tail happens to be in dry leaves, this can make a nice buzzing sound, startling predators (hopefully), and giving the snake the opportunity to escape.
Some authorities think the Rattlesnakes developed as a group on the Great Plains, a place without dry leaves to use, so developed the rattle in response to their absence. The rattles enabled them to frighten predators and Buffalo, therefore enableing them to survive, and some say that Nature doesn't give up something she has made. This may have no truth value, but I find it interesting that almost all harmless snakes do this in dry leaves, and the Rattlers (who seem to have a large distribution in the arid Southwest where there are few leaves) have rattles.
Thank you for telling the general location of the snake; it can be terribly crucial in identification. As a matter of fact your friend is a Northern Black Racer (as opposed to a Southern Black Racer, Blue Racer, Buttermilk Racer or a few more I don't really want to look up).
Thanks for writing, and if you want any more information you can write me at danetherton at charter (dot) net.
The Appalachian Naturalist