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Urban Herping – Finding Snakes in New York City

Bagging a snakeHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Inspired by fellow Bronxite John Kiernan’s wonderful book A Natural History of New York City, I have searched for reptiles and amphibians in just about every corner of the Big Apple.  An amazing array of species manage to hold on here and in other cities around the world (Reticulated Pythons are regularly encountered in Singapore and Bangkok) – in fact, I cannot cover all of NYC’s species in a single article.  Today I’ll take a look at big city snakes.

Snakes of NY State

New York State is home to 17-18 species of snakes, most of which once dwelled within NYC limits. Three of these – the Copperhead, Timber Rattlesnake and Eastern Massasauga – are venomous. 

Snake diversity increases when you travel just a bit north or east of NYC.  Fifteen years ago I had the amazing good fortune to search for snakes with legendary herpetologist Rhom Whittaker (who, although based in India, is a former New Yorker).  We found 6 snake and 4 salamander species in a single day at Westchester’s Ward Pound Ridge Park!

The Ultimate Urban Snake

The only species that one might “almost reliably” expect to find within the city is the DeKay’s Snake (or Northern Brown Snake, as it is now more commonly known).  This secretive little serpent was my first wild snake sighting – but, at age 5, I was not quick enough to catch it.  However, I’ve taught my 3-year-old cousin better, and just last week he made his first capture (please see photo; please note that all NYS herps are now protected, and may not be collected).

As a child, I found Brown Snakes to be quite common in small, overgrown lots in a few Bronx neighborhoods, where they were easier to find than in the more “snake-friendly” environs of Van Courtlandt Park.  While a student at the Bronx High School of Science, I surprised a well-known herpetologist who, on a visit there, overheard me talking about collecting snakes near my home.  He later visited the dead-end street site I mentioned, and published a note about it in a local herp society newsletter.  Each year I still take in and release a few Brown Snakes that are uncovered by folks in NYC, so it seems they are here to stay.

Urban Snake Habitats

It’s difficult to provide guidelines for urban snake viewing.  Cities provide unique opportunities and challenges to snakes and snake hunters, and so what works in the countryside often has little bearing in the city. 

For example, Black Racers and Smooth Green Snakes have long been absent from NYC’s largest stretches of woodland (i.e. Van Cortland Park).  However, they managed to hold on for a time in abandoned lots in the South Bronx.  Blighted by fires in the 1970’s, these lots and the ruined buildings on them provided me with many non-herp surprises as well, such as Barn Owl nests and roosting Little Brown Bats.  However, such areas were and still are very dangerous places (due to human, not reptile-related threats) and should be avoided.

Pelham Bay ParkGiven the unique nature of urban snake habitats, I’ll describe some of the places I’ve found various species, rather than attempt a review of likely sites.  As anywhere else, large undisturbed areas are always worth a look.  NYC host a surprising number of such places, including Van Cortlandt Park, the further reaches of Central Park, Staten Island’s Greenbelt and many more.  As a child, my favorite collecting sites for herps of all kinds were the grounds of the Bronx Zoo and the NY Botanical Gardens. With the exception of the highly-specialized Eastern Hognose Snake, any of the species mentioned here may be encountered in such habitats.

Regular Residents

Eastern Garter, Northern Red-Bellied and Northern Ring-Necked Snakes can turn up anywhere, even on unused lots in Manhattan, but are nowhere common.

Eastern Milk Snakes

When I first began working at the Bronx Zoo, I was astonished to learn that Eastern Milk Snakes could still be found along one stretch of Pelham Parkway.  The presence of a horse stable and a private mouse breeder (this a unique story in itself!) seemed to assist the snakes in their battle to survive alongside millions of people and 24/7 traffic.  In fact, some of the largest specimens I know of came from this site.  Sadly, all has now changed for the worst, but one never knows where the next surprise population will emerge.

Copperheads

Until recently, Copperheads dwelled right beneath the George Washington Bridge, on the NJ side.  I haunted the grounds of the Cloister’s Museum, on the NY side of the river, where they were also found in days past.  I was rewarded with a Ring-Necked Snake and plenty of Browns, as well as Red-Backed Salamanders – venomous snakes were never on my “must catch list” anyway!

Northern Water Snakes

Recently I was happy to observe Northern Water Snakes on the grounds of the NY Botanical Gardens.  Some years ago I re-introduced this species to the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, and they are now breeding there, but are uncommon.  Unfortunately, these feisty beasts seem extirpated from the rest of the city, with the possible exception of Staten Island. 

Hognose Snakes

Milk SnakeTen or so years ago I was involved in a herp reintroduction program based in Gateway National Park, along Jamaica Bay.  A huge population of Fowler’s Toads suited the area for Eastern Hognose Snakes, and the species did surprisingly well there.  These unique specialists are to be found nowhere else in the city.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook. Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments here…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Please see my article on what might be the oddest urban herp experience – Hunting Alligators in NYC’s Sewers.

Urban Amphibians: Axolotls Found in Mexico City Park  

Snakes of NY: Photos and Information  

Snakes in Indian Cities  

Milksnake image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Tracy

3 comments

  1. avatar

    A most interesting article on urban herping. It is hard to imagine that these interesting creatures are in and around the NYC area. I have, in the past, read with interest your article on ?gators in the sewer system? I know ask this, is it possible for a snake (It would have to be a water snake I would imagine) to find its’ way into a drainage system and find its’ way out, perhaps into a bathroom? This question was posed to me by some friends in NJ who live by the Delaware river. Keep the great articles coming. Susan

  2. avatar

    Hello Michele, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog. Try confining the snake to a container of wet sphagnum moss overnight, as described in this article (preferable to water for this species) and let me know how all goes. Please also send details as to its diet and care (heat, humidity, substrate, tank size etc. and I’ll review with you.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hello Susan, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog and the kind words.

    Technically, if there is a way into a pipe, a snake could theoretically make its way through the pipe and out its other end. However, this would not happen where pipes empty into a cesspool, and would be nearly impossible if the snakes starting point was a sewer. I suspect that some of the stories circulating on the internet involved snakes that were already at large in a house, and sought refuge in an open toilet bowl.

    I was involved in one recapture of a snake that had escaped in a zoo’s reptile house and somehow emerged from an exhibit drain pipe in another building, but that snake did not enter the sewer system.

    Along much of the Delaware River in NJ, I’d say habituated black bears, deer ticks and inebriated boaters pose a far greater risk than snakes, in or out of the bathroom!

    You might enjoy this article on my childhood adventures fishing for alligators in the sewers of NYC.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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