I can't tell one five-foot black rat snake from another, so I don't know if what's been showing up in my chicken coop every Friday all summer is the same one or not, but I rather think he is. My guess is that a week is the time it takes him to digest his meal of mice and an occasional egg. That is speculation, for none of my books tells me when mealtime is for five-foot black rat snakes.
Black rat snakes are among the largest common snakes found here in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. I estimate the one in the chicken coop to be five feet long, but they grow even longer, to six feet or more. They're shiny black as adults, but patterned with brownish-blackish markings when they're young. The vaguest hint of blotching can sometimes be seen on adults. That gives them their scientific name, Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta. Elaphe allies them with their kind, the other rat and corn snakes, and obsoleta is a term used in biology to mean indistinct. Their common name suggests their diet. And I've named this one Friday.
I was pleased when I saw the first black rat snake in the spring. There were mice in the barn, mice in the chicken coop, and soon there were black rat snakes of all sizes everywhere. One of the reasons I think Friday must be the same snake is that he has grown self-assured in his sense of possession of the chicken coop, where he soon had the mouse population reduced to tolerable levels. His species can be fierce and will bite if attacked, but Friday seems to understand that I don't intend to hurt him, and he ignores me. The day I found him coiled up in a nest—the three eggs he had swallowed clearly apparent in his midsection—he looked at me calmly; he was too lumpy to have slithered away quickly anyway. Last Friday, when I went out to gather the eggs, he was in the coop again. The day was a hot one, and the two-inch-wide pool at the base of the watering fountain had enticed him to try a bit of a bathe. He looked me square in the eye as I stood laughing at him. No supposed serpentine dignity could keep him from being anything but ridiculous as he tried to loop and jam his entire five-foot length into the pool.
Black rat snakes also feed on birds, and in recognition of their tastes, I brood the dozen pullets I buy each spring in my cabin. I keep them under an electric light in a refrigerator carton near the wood stove. For a week or so, in their downy softness, they are a delight, but they grow gawky rapidly and stupidly peck one another if they don't have enough space. One spring I put them out too soon and the next morning found a dead pullet, too big for a black rat snake to swallow, but small enough for it to kill. Black rat snakes kill prey of that size by constriction, and the snake's spiral grip was clearly imprinted on the pullet's strangely elongated corpse. Now I keep the pullets in the cabin longer, until they're too big to be a snake's victims.
Another time, I was able to save a pair of baby phoebes from a black rat snake. The parent birds had built their nest just under the eaves of the barn, and I'd been watching them through the window on and off all spring. The eggs had hatched, and there were two fledglings in the nest the day I was working out there and heard a terrible ruckus beyond the barn window. The parent birds were in a nearby persimmon tree, crying in distress because a black rat snake, like the good climber his breed is, had slithered up the side of the barn and was looped around the nest, calmly swallowing their babies. I ran outside, grabbed the snake by the tail and shook him hard. The fledglings dropped from his mouth, wet but undigested. I threw the snake as far as I could, scooped up the babies and put them back.
Of course, meddlesome me was the human responsible for raising a flock of chickens, thus creating prime mouse habitat, which set the process in motion in the first place. I'm a great interferer; I fiddle around, adjust, alter, modify. That is neither good nor bad, but just being human, in the same way the snake that eats both mice and phoebes is just being serpentile.
But the special and splendid thing about being human is that I can sit down someplace where it's very quiet, like under an oak tree on my Ozark hilltop, and think about it all, and understand that as subtle and complicated as the whole system of interrelationships is, it's all very real, and that when I meddle with any one part of it, there are reverberations throughout the whole.