North American Racer (Coluber constrictor ssp.)
The North American Racer is a long, skinny, fast snake. It is one of a few common, larger "black snakes" found in Arkansas. Although there is some variation in each subspecies, the general dorsal coloration of an adult is typically solid black. Some may appear indigo, taking on a decidedly bluish tint (and may be referred to by locals as a "Blue Racer"). Others are more of a dullish olive green to dark brown. The underside (except in the Southern Black Racer) is a solid cream or yellow that may extend well onto the face.
Four subspecies occur in the state. The Yellow-bellied Racer (C. c. flaviventris) follows the typical coloration for the species. The Buttermilk Racer (C. c. anthicus) is lightly and randomly speckled with flakes of white. Some with an unusual abundance of specks may appear to have a checkerboard pattern. The Black-masked Racer (C. c. latrunculus) has very dark black stripes behind each eye. The Southern Black Racer (C. c. priapus) may have a lighter coloration of cream or yellow on its chin and throat, but its belly is uniformly dark.
Babies and juveniles of this species have a chain-like patterning (similar to that of a young Speckled Kingsnake). This patterning is usually bolder toward the head, fading to blue or black toward the tail. This patterning quickly disappears over the course of a year or two to become the patterning seen in adults.
This species can be found in a variety of habitats. It is especially at home in fields, cedar glades, and along the edges of woodland. Because of the prime habitat around old barns and hay fields (with the abundance of small mammal prey such areas provide), farmers often see this species darting like lightning from the path of their tractors and footsteps.
This species spends a good portion of its time either basking or actively foraging. They can often be seen along roadsides or other edge habitat where they can find a lot of sun.
This species mates in the spring, eggs are laid in the summer, and hatching occurs in the fall. The eggs are oblong, white, and grainy. The young have a different patterning than the adults (see Description above).
This species is highly active during the day as it hunts primarily for rodents, although birds, lizards, insects, and even other snakes are also part of the diet. Often an North American Racer will crawl with its head well off the ground in order to scan the surroundings for activity. Its sense of sight is a key asset in hunting. (Many people erroneously think that all snakes have terrible eyesight. Many, in fact, are thought to have very good eyesight, tuned for sensing motion.) Contrary to its scientific name, constrictor, the North American Racer is not a constrictor. It simply "grabs and eats". Prey that does not subdue easily may be thrashed against the ground or shaken vigorously. Because of its active lifestyle, a North American Racer requires more food to fuel its metabolism than snakes that simply "sit and wait" for their food to come within striking range.
The North American Racer is a high-strung and nervous-acting snake. Its primary defenses are stealth and speed. When approached, this snake will likely freeze at first; sometimes raising its head a foot or so off the ground to get a better vantage of the danger. Not being seen at all is its best defense and it must somehow know that if it moves it will give itself away. If an approaching person walks too close, the North American Racer will dart away like a bolt of greased lightning. Speed is its second line of defense. Sometimes they dart right under a nearby rock or into a wood pile, other times they may seek refuge by climbing into a nearby tree. When the area is fairly exposed and mostly barren, such as in a large field with shorter grass, they may not slow down until they are completely out of sight.
The North American Racer has an uncanny knack of darting away a split second before a person actually has visual contact; usually this happens right underfoot. Even I have to admit to having my heart skip a beat more than a few times by this experience. To me, it is rather akin to a friend jumping out from behind a door to scare me. The experience is harmless, but nevertheless startling.
Actually catching a North American Racer is a big challenge, even when using snake tongs. If one of these snakes does happen to be grabbed, the handler may soon find out that they got more than they bargained for. When first grabbed, a North American Racer will almost always turn around immediately and strike at the danger; darting away again as soon as released. If this happens to be someone bending down to grab one by the tail, the strike just so happens to be toward the face, and almost always results in an immediate release. For someone brave enough to hold on, the North American Racer uses a full range of defensive maneuvers: thrashing, jerking, twisting, striking and biting repeatedly, musking, and pooping. Tremendous care must be taken to ensure that the snake does not harm itself, because it could actually break its backbone and spinal chord in a frantic effort to escape.
Overall, this species is abundant and common. Because of its speed, this species is difficult to corner and therefore more difficult for someone to kill. Most, due to their habit of basking on highways, are likely killed as the result of being hit by vehicles.
The Buttermilk Racer is considered Rare by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (see Laws for more details).