Snake Profile: Chicken Snake/Yellow Rat Snake

Chicken snakes. Yellow rat snakes. What exactly are they?

When one does a search on the internet about a chicken snake or a yellow rat snake, a lot of different things may pop up.

In the US and other parts of the world, many species of snakes have been called chicken snakes; in fact what is a chicken snake in one state is sometimes referred to by a different name in another state.

To make matters even more complicated, some people even think that chicken snakes are the same as rat snakes. While that may be true in some cases, there is a specific species we are covering in this profile.

To clear the confusion, the Chicken Snake (Spilotes pullatus) is a distinct species of snake.

Some other common names for Spilotes pullatus are:

  • Yellow rat snake
  • Tiger rat snake
  • Mexican tiger rat snake
  • Mexican yellow rat snake
  • Caninana
  • Serpiente Tigre

Additionally, this snake has many resemblances to non-venomous species like the fox snake (Pantherophis vulpinus), rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus), pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus) and corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus).

Yellow Rat Snake

The chicken snake loves to consume chicken eggs and mammals alike, but all these other related species of snakes also like the same foods.

Also, the rat snake, corn snake, pine snake all exhibit very similar behavior to that of a chicken snake. All there are harmless reptiles to humans and non-venomous.

Yellow Rat Snake Habitat

Chicken snakes are semi-arboreal, meaning that they can be found on land or on trees.

They are usually nocturnal but may be seen taking a nap during the day. Frequently, they will take shelter in small hedges, trees, or fences waiting for the prey to pass by.

Many of these snakes are also found in areas of farming because the food is a magnet for other animals. Thus, do not be surprised to see a chicken snake in a barn or a shed waiting to kill rodents.

The other feature of chicken snakes is that they are also excellent swimmers.

In some cases, if threatened by another animal, the snake will take refuge in waters.

They are also known to hunt small amphibians along the shores of rivers, canals, lagoons, and streams. Most chicken snakes living in North American hibernate during winter. 

Where are Yellow Rat Snakes Found?

The chicken snake (Spilotes pullatus) goes by several names in different parts of the USA including the yellow rat snake, caninana, or the Serpiente Tigre.

This is a species of large nonvenomous family of snakes that are commonly found in the warmer areas of the North American continent. In the USA, the chicken snake is most commonly found in the Southern States that boarder the Atlantic coast.

Additionally, they can be found in the eastern parts of Mexico. Hence the common names Mexican yellow rat snake, Mexican tiger rat snake etc.

Caninanas can be found in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and bordering states along the South Eastern United States.

Chicken Snake Attributes and Behavior

Visible Appearance

The appearance of chicken snakes is variable. They may vary in color from black/brown, but they almost always have a prominent yellow color. Sometimes, the yellow color can be really incredible:

beautiful mexican tiger snake

In addition, the snake may have stripes, bands, speckled appearance, or blotches. The color is greatly dependent on where the snake resides.

The body is usually slender with keeled scales. The head is wedge-shaped with eyes at the sides.

How Long do Tiger Rat Snakes They Get?

In the wild, they may range in size from 4-7 feet but in captivity they will only grow between 3-6 feet. Girth-wise, this species is pretty narrow. Very similar to that of a Corn Snake or King Snake.

Also, as with many species, females tend to grow slightly larger than males.

Chicken Snake Lifespan

Overall, the lifespan of this species is again similar to corn snakes and king snakes. They will typically live somewhere between 10-18 years. In captivity, they tend live longer than out in the wild.  

Are Chicken Snakes Dangerous?

Nope. Not dangerous at all.

While this species may look dangerous, they are non-venomous and harmless to humans. Often times, most snakes can look dangerous to the untrained eye.

Are Yellow Rat Snakes Venomous?

No, this species is a nonvenomous, constricting snake. While it may look deadly, often times it’s just imitating a more venomous snake when its scared. See below for a picture of a Mexican Tiger Snake imitating a Cobra. Pretty interesting!

chicken snake puffing up as a defense mechanism
A tiger rat snake (Spilotes pullatus) inflates itself in defense to appear larger. Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica.

Rest assured, these fellas are harmless. In fact, they tend to help keep rodent populations in check. So if you don’t like rodents running around in your yard, these guys are definitely friends, not enemies!

These snakes may mimic sounds and hisses like that of a venomous snake. Bu don’t worry, this type of behavior is primarily a mechanism to scare away predators.

So, would it hurt to get bitten by one? No, not really.

These snakes have very small teeth, and if bitten, would cause minimal damage. In fact, it’s very similar to that of a Corn Snake Bite.

How Do These Snakes Hunt?

Yellow Rat Snakes are non-venomous, and kill their prey by constriction. These snakes are known for their patience and usually ambush the prey; however, if they are hungry, they will actively forage for other animals.

yellow tiger snake mouth open

These agile snakes grab and then roll their body around at the prey, slowly squeezing them to death.

The animal is often unable to breathe and usually dies within seconds when being constricted. Yellow rat snakes have a varied diet and while they eat eggs, they also consume rats, voles, mice, and other small animals like lizards, frogs, bird eggs, and even birds. 

So, Can They Kill a Chicken?

Yes, but usually only if it’s a chick (i.e. a baby chicken).

The chances of them killing a full grown chicken is very slim. In fact, they can be damaged pretty badly by a rooster or hen’s talons, so these snakes usually go for chicks an eggs.

Plus, full grown chickens are generally too large for the snake to swallow. For the most part, only very large snakes like boas, anacondas, and pythons would be able to eat a full grown chicken.

So in general, a chicken snake may kill a chick and eat an egg; but it will usually avoid a mature chicken as the risk of injury from the chicken’s claws can be lethal.

How Yellow Rat Snakes Reproduce

Like many land snakes, chicken snakes are oviparous, meaning that they lay eggs that are not incubated inside the mother. In most cases, the Serpiente Tigre mates in spring and lay eggs soon after.

If the conditions are right the female will lay eggs twice a year-usually just before spring and late summer.

However, the conditions have to be right and there must be food available. Otherwise, the snake will lay eggs only once a year.

The number of eggs may vary from 12-18; usually less in colder climates. The eggs are typically hidden under leaves, a pile of compost, or in a shallow hole. Unfortunately snake eggs attract many predators and only a few will hatch and survive.

The young usually hatch after 6-8 weeks and are left alone to survive; chicken snakes generally make poor parents.

The baby snake, soon after birth, can vary in length from 8-12 inches. Unfortunately, even at this stage they are vulnerable and are often eaten by other snakes and birds.

Chicken Snakes in Your Back Yard

peekaboo! look at this fella. he's a chicken snake staring right at you

The chicken snake helps limit the number of rodents like mice in the area. If you have a chicken snake on your property, rest assured, your property will be rodent-free.

But at the same time, you will have to secure your chicken coup and protect the eggs.

Of course, that is if you have chickens in the first place.

Also, the young chicken snakes are also eaten by other snakes and birds.

Yellow Rat Snake Behavior

The behavior of chicken snakes does vary but overall they are not aggressive or threatening snakes to humans.

The chicken snake is often mistaken as a rattler by most people; the reason is that the snake does coil its body and rattles its tail when threatened.

Most of the chicken snakes found in North America tend to be shy. That said, some of the younger snakes may show signs of aggression if threatened.

But in most cases, the chicken snake will shy and move away rather than confront a large animal or human. 

Some species of chicken snakes also secrete a foul-smelling musk when picked up by a human.

Most chicken snakes are known to vibrate their tails and produce a rattling sound, in an attempt to confuse the predator that they are a rattlesnake.

Unfortunately, this mimicry does not go well when encountered by humans, who often get frightened and kill the snake thinking it is a real rattler.

Do Mexican Yellow Rat Snakes Make Good Pets?

Chicken Snake. Mexican Yellow Rat Snake. They’re all the same species in this context… but do they make good pets?

Of course, you can have one of these as a pet.

incredible looking yellow rat snake

While they aren’t as common a pet snake as Ball Pythons or Corn Snakes, Chicken Snakes are typically available if you look hard enough.

Terrarium Recommendations

The chicken snake is a fast agile climber and thus no matter what type of housing you select, it must be secure or the snake will escape. The hatch (lid) must be solid and heavy to prevent the snake from escaping.

You will need a 30-50 gallon tank depending on the size of the snake. Since these snakes like to soak in water, a large water bowl is highly recommended. Even though the chicken snake does not require much maintenance, the cage needs to be cleaned on a weekly basis and the water must be kept fresh. 

The tank should contain substrates that the snake will find in the wild. This may include pieces of wood, tree branches, leaves, or pine chips. One may even use a reptile carpet or newspapers.

Coconut Bark chips are recommended as they can also be scooped relatively easily when they are dirty. Do not add sand as the snake may inhale the particles leading to respiratory distress. All sharp objects should be avoided as they can injure the reptile.

Before you place any material in the tank, wash it thoroughly, ensure that they have no strong smell, and remove any sharp objects.

The major reason why many pet snakes die or don’t fare well in captivity is because of poor tank management.

Temperature and Humidity Control

Chicken snakes prefer cooler temperature and thus the enclosure temperature should be between 70-80F. The night temperature should not be allowed to dip below 70F. There are special UVB lights for reptiles that should be used to provide heat. The use of submersible heat advice or rocks is not recommended as they can burn the snake.

To maintain the circadian day and night rhythm, one should use some type of UVB light set to turn on and off every 10-12 hours.

The humidity in the tank should be around 40-60%. When the snake is shedding higher humidity is preferred. The humidity can be easily increased by placing a bowl of water in the tank.

Feeding a Pet Chicken Snake in Captivity

If you plan to keep a tiger rat snake as a pet, then you need to know how to feed it. In the wild, these snakes constrict the prey but in captivity, they will eat already killed prey.

This is a much safer option as the snake is unlikely to be injured by a live animal-which can bite or scratch the reptile. Pet snakes will eat mice or rats which can be ordered in bulk online or you can buy them from pet stores.

Snakes need to be fed just once a week but this depends on the size of the food particle and snake size.

The chicken snake will eat much less or nothing at all when it is about to shed or is currently shedding.

Potential Pet Tiger Rat Snake Health Problems

In general, chicken snakes make good pets as long as you handle them properly. However, they are also prone to several health problems like mouth and lung infections.

Sometimes snakes also develop fungal infections which will present as discolored skin. All these conditions can be managed by a veterinarian.

You will need to find a veterinarian who specifically deals with reptiles. Be warned, the costs to manage health problems in snakes is prohibitively expensive.

With all this in mind, if you buy a snake from a reputable breeder, most health problems can be avoided. Often times, health problems in snakes are due to them being caught in the wild or not properly bred/handled by a breeder.

Breeders can also help you understand the specifics needed for the species of snake you want to own — even if it’s a Chicken Snake.

How Much Does a Yellow Rat Snake Cost?

Before you consider buying a chicken snake as a pet, know what a healthy snake looks like. These snakes can be bought from most reptile stores and breeders.

It is important to look at any snake before purchasing, and we also recommend asking questions about health, background, care, etc.

A healthy chicken snake should have clear eyes, taut skin (too much skin is not healthy), no skin discoloration and there should be no cuts or bruises.

In addition it should be free of mites and ticks. Finally, a healthy snake should be alert and flick its tongue frequently.

The cost of the chicken snake may vary from $50-$150.

We highly recommend buying from a breeder and not catching a wild snake and putting it in captivity.

Without knowing the snake history, it may not survive too long. In addition, in many cases, wild snakes are very stubborn and will refuse to eat dead prey.

Is this an Endangered Species

Some species that are similar to a Tiger Rat Snake are endangered. The Spilotes pullatus however, is not endangered. That said, the population is declining, just like the population of many other North American snakes.

The reason for this includes urbanization, human hunting, and other predators. Until conservation efforts are initiated, there will continue to be a decline in all species of snakes in North America.

Other Species Profiles:

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