When it comes to snakes in North Carolina, some people have a deep, abiding fear that no amount of practical knowledge can subdue.
In their eyes, a snake is a snake, and any snake is dangerous. Unfortunately, this results in a dead snake much more frequently than a bitten person.
Unfortunately, this often results in an irritable snake, which is likely the last thing any animal lover would want.
My wife, Emma, grew up in Britain. She was never exposed to dangerous snakes, so she never acquired a healthy fear of them. She often moves closer to venomous snakes and non venomous snakes in equal measure, with her camera at the ready.
Being from Louisiana, I tend to err on the side of caution. I grew up near a pond that was thick with water moccasins and anecdotes (no doubt false or exaggerated) of water skiers falling into nests of angry snakes.
Despite being interested in the snakes common to North Carolina, the fear-first instinct is deeply instilled in me. Nevertheless, we’re both fans of snakes, which causes bewilderment among friends and family.
Read on for our guide to venomous snakes and non venomous snakes in North Carolina, including tips on identification of the most common species.
Identifying Snakes in North Carolina: Non-Venomous vs Venomous
In general, the few venomous snakes in NC have bulkier bodies, triangular heads, and cat-like eyes.
While there are exceptions, there are other helpful hints when you’re trying to determine whether or not a snake is actually dangerous.
It begins with having a realistic perspective. There are 37 species of snakes in North Carolina, with 31 types of non-venomous snakes in NC and only 6 types of venomous snakes.
Of those 6 “poisonous” snakes in North Carolina, three of them are relegated to the hotter, far southeastern section of the state. They aren’t found anywhere else!
In other words, the likelihood of crossing paths with one of NC’s “poisonous” snakes is far lower than seeing one of the many non-venomous snakes.
Furthermore, we only need to know how to ID a few NC snakes in order to know whether a snake is of any concern with regards to our personal safety.
Commonly Confused Venomous and Non-Venomous Snakes of NC
That being said, there are a few mistaken identities to be aware of in NC snake identification. Some of the non-venomous species can be misidentified because they look similar to venomous snakes.
Scarlet kingsnakes and Eastern coral snakes can be confused, as both have bands of yellow, red, and black.
Firstly, scarlet kingsnakes are found throughout North Carolina, but coral snakes are rare in a few southeastern counties. But, the ordering of these bands is the easiest tell-tale sign between them.
The kingsnake has red and black bands next to each other, while the venomous coral snake has red and yellow bands as neighbors. Remember, “Red and black, friend of Jack; red and yellow, kill a fellow.”
Pygmy rattlesnakes and North Carolina’s non-venomous hognose snakes (two species) have similar appearances as well.
They all have gray-black patterns, short and stocky bodies, and striking heads/noses. However, pygmy rattlesnakes have cat-like eyes as well as a rattle that sounds like a small insect, and inhabit the far south and far east regions of the state..
It’s common for people to call all water snakes water moccasins (a.k.a. cottonmouths). However, there are far more non-venomous North Carolina water snakes found near rivers and waterfalls, some of which are often mistaken for water moccasins.
Banded water snakes, brown water snakes, and northern water snakes all look similar to cottonmouths, and they behave similarly when threatened: flattening their bodies, emitting a smelly musk, and striking.
In other words, it’s best just to give a wide berth of any of these snakes when you’re in the water moccasin’s native habitat in NC.
6 Venomous Snakes in North Carolina
1. Canebrake/Timber Rattlesnake
One of two venomous snakes that are native to Western North Carolina, timber rattlesnakes (which are called canebrake in lower elevations) are found throughout the Eastern United States.
They can grow up to 6.5 feet long, with black crossbands (or chevrons) on a lighter gray to orange-brown background.
In North Carolina, they’re found in the Blue Ridge Mountains, southern counties, and along the east coast. They live everywhere from the NC High Country near Boone and Blowing Rock to the coastal plains.
Like many larger snakes, timber rattlers primarily feed on rodents, helping to control these populations.
They mate in the late summer/early fall, which is when they are most likely to be encountered.
The other of the two venomous snakes in Western North Carolina, copperheads are the most common venomous snake in the state.
In short, there are copperheads in all North Carolina counties..
Copperheads can grow up to four-plus feet. They have beautiful markings, with dark brown hourglass crossbands on a lighter tan background. And, of course, they have distinctive copper-colored heads.
These snakes like to ambush their prey, including mice, frogs, and insects.
3. Eastern Coral Snakes
Eastern coral snakes like warmer environs and generally stick to the southeastern region of North Carolina. Even there, they are extremely rare.
These snakes are in the Elapidae family, the same as cobras and mambas. They have fixed fangs rather than the retractable fangs that are associated with rattlesnakes and vipers.
Unlike most venomous snakes, coral snakes tend to be thin. They have red, yellow, and black bands, with thin yellow bands separating the thicker red and black bands.
The Eastern coral snake feeds on smaller snakes and lizards. They spend most of their time underground and are extremely shy, so they’re much more apt to run than bite.
It should go without saying , but never try to pick them up. When they do bite, they don’t let go, and they have very powerful venom that attacks the central nervous system.
4. Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin
One of the most notorious snakes in the Southeastern US, the cottonmouth/water moccasin is a semi-aquatic snake that usually lives near water. But it can be found elsewhere.
In North Carolina, water moccasins only live in the eastern counties. Remember, there are no venomous water snakes in Western NC whatsoever.
Growing up to 6 feet long, cottonmouths are dark, heavy-bodied snakes with black bands. Adult snakes are often darker than the younger ones.
They have white coloring inside their mouths, which they open wide when threatened. They also flatten their bodies to look larger, and exude an unpleasant odor.
These snakes have a wide-ranging diet, including rodents as well as frogs, fish, and other snakes.
5. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
One of four North Carolina rattlesnakes, the Eastern diamond rattlesnake is the largest of the lot. It can reach up to eight feet long!
This venomous snake is only found in the Coastal Plains in the far southeast reaches of the state. Even there, its numbers are very low due to habitat destruction.
Eastern diamondbacks have yellow-ish, gray backs with dark bands that form diamond outlines, which camouflages them very well. But when frightened, they will rattle an alarm.
Like the other large, venomous snakes in North Carolina, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes help to control the rodent population.
6. Pygmy Rattlesnake
Recognized as the smallest rattlesnake in the United States, the appropriately named pygmy rattlesnake is less than 3 feet long. This snake is so small, its rattle buzzes like an insect!
Pygmy rattlers are mostly found in the southeastern counties of NC, with a few sightings reported in Crowder’s Mountain State Park in Gaston County (near Charlotte).
This attractive NC rattlesnake feeds on small prey, such as frogs, lizards, and mice.
The Pygmy rattlesnake will bite if cornered, and we’re fairly certain that would not be fun. But thanks to its diminutive size, its venom is considerably less potent than that of other rattlesnakes in North Carolina.
7 Common Non-Venomous Snakes in North Carolina
1. Brown snake
Brown snakes in North Carolina are small, usually under a foot but capable of getting nearly two feet.
NC brown snakes are typically light brown, but can lean towards gray or ruddy brown. Their undersides are white. with black dots along the edges.
Brown snakes like to live in gardens, feeding on pests such as snails and slugs, as well as earthworms. They also like to hide under logs and rocks, as well as piles of trash in vacant lots.
These snakes are very common to North Carolina and are found in every county of the state.
READ MORE: The 30 Best Things to Do in Asheville NC
2. Corn snake
Corn snakes earned their names by hanging out in corn cribs, grain bins, and barns, where rats and mice— their favorite prey– tend to visit.
These snakes are constrictors that squeeze their prey to death before swallowing it whole.
Capable of growing up to 6 feet long, corn snakes are beautiful, with red blocks bordered in black on an orange-brown background. In the coastal plains, North Carolina corn snakes tend to have brighter colors.
They live everywhere in the state except for the far northern counties along the Virginia border.
They are usually found at the edges of fields, often hiding under logs, old boards, or tin.
3. Eastern Hognose Snake
While southern hognose snakes only occupy a small portion of the southeast region of North Carolina, eastern hognose snakes can be found everywhere.
They average a little over two feet long, and they tend to be very stocky.
They feed primarily on frogs and toads, using large teeth at the back of their mouths to pop the amphibians before swallowing them.
Hognose snakes exhibit some weird animal behaviors. They often act like cobras when initially threatened, flattening their necks and hissing at the offending party.
If they strike, they’ll often do so repeatedly. If that’s unsuccessful, they act like a possum and play dead, rolling onto their backs, opening their mouths, and writhing around with lots of drama!
4. Eastern Garter Snake
One of the most prolific snakes in the United States, eastern garter snakes can be found just about anywhere in the country.
They are present throughout the state of North Carolina, and particularly love being near water.
They usually have dark patterns on their back, with yellow or white stripes stretching down their sides and a green-to-yellow belly. They can get as large as 4 feet, but are generally about half that long.
Eastern garter snakes prefer to dine on frogs and lizards, can swim surprisingly well, and are primarily active during the day.
The eastern ribbon snake, which is similar both in behavior and appearance, isn’t quite as omnipresent, but can also be found in NC.
5. Northern Water Snake
They can be quite large, with a heavy body that can grow up to 5 feet. They’re dark, with a variation of colors, including black, brown, gray, and red.
There are two similar non-venomous NC water snakes, the banded and brown water snakes. All three species can be confused with cottonmouths, which are dark-colored, thick-bodied. and like the water.
Northern water snakes feed on a variety of stuff, but especially amphibians and fish.
Even though the northern water snake isn’t venomous, it will bite if threatened. Much like water moccasins, it also releases a musk on attackers.
READ MORE: The 30 Best Waterfalls Near Asheville NC
6. Eastern Rat Snake
Rat snakes can be a little startling to encounter.
They’re quite large, averaging 5 feet long and capable of growing upwards of 8 feet. They also move surprisingly quickly, despite having large bodies.
Rat snakes in North Carolina can vary in coloring.
In the mountains, they tend to be solid black with white bellies, but on the Coastal Plains they can be yellow with dark stripes and white bellies. Juveniles will have distinct, splotchy patterns.
These snakes are strong constrictors that like to eat rats and mice, as well as chicken eggs and birds.
They are sometimes referred to as “chicken snakes,” because they frequent chicken coops and farms.
7. Scarlet Kingsnake
The scarlet kingsnake is not the only king snake in North Carolina, but it is the most widespread species.
Due to its vivid red, yellow, and black bands, this is widely considered one of the most beautiful native North Carolina snakes.
Those bands also make it easy to confuse with the rare and timid (but extremely venomous, coral snake.
Kingsnakes rather famously eat other, smaller snakes, as well as lizards and mice.
Other North Carolina Snakes to Look For
There are several other snakes that live all over North Carolina, including worm snakes, racers, rough green snakes, eastern milk snakes, and red-bellied snakes.
There are also regional snakes, such as mud snakes, rainbow snakes, pine snakes, and coachwhips (the state’s longest snake).
What to Do If You (or Your Dog) Are Bitten by a Snake
It’s important to understand that snake bites are extremely rare, and venomous snake bites are even rarer.
In the USA, there are only around 5 fatal snake bites a year, which makes them far less likely than deaths by lightning strike (about 50 a year).
However, some 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by a venomous snake every year. In other words, less than 1% of those people bitten by a deadly snake each year actually die.
That being said, there are some common misconceptions about what to do if you are bitten by a snake (or if your dog is bitten by a snake) while hiking.
Using a tourniquet and sucking the venom out are actually ineffective, and ultimately more likely to cause a problem than to solve one. The same goes for taking Benadryl.
The right thing to do if you’re bitten by a snake is to remain calm, remove any jewelry that could become troublesome with swelling, and seek emergency services as soon as possible.
Another common mistake is to attempt to kill or capture the snake. The already agitated animal is likely to strike out more and cause further issues.
Instead, simply try to observe some standout physical features of the snake in order to help the professionals ID it later.
If your dog is bitten, the same rules apply. Animals do usually survive a snake bite, especially if they’re taken to a vet immediately. –Jonathon Engels