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.
Given 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.
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.
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.
Ten 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 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
Milksnake image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Tracy
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
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.
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.
Yesterday I found a baby milk snake under a rock in some wooded area by a cemetery on Staten Island. Upon researching it just now I came across this page and figured i would inform you. There can’t be just one baby. I’ll be going back n searching for more.
Thanks…very nice to hear; they are still hanging n there in small numbers, as are a few other herps not found elsewhere in nYC. You might enjoy John Kiernan’s “The Natural History of NYC”…great perspective on what what was and sometimes still is here.
Please keep in mind that it is illegal to collect or keep any of nY’s native herps.
Enjoy, Best, Frank
On Sunday June 8, 2014, I was walking in Northern Manhattans, Inwood Hill Park, and I believe I came across a Eastern Milk Snake. I deduce this by reading your website and goggling the different names of snakes you had mentioned and looking at photos. I took a photo of it and would like to email it to you if you have an email address. The snake was not much thicker than a pencil and was maybe 8 -10 inches long.
Thanks…Inwood holds some surprises..skunks, red-backed and other salamanders, an oc. deer that walks over when the river freezes; would be great to know that milk snakes were holding on there. Please email to email@example.com
The other day i gound a pewter cornsnake (or so i was told) prancing around INSIDE my manhattan apartment on the FOURTH floor!! How can i find out how it got there? I am terrified to stay in the apartment (the snake is no longer tbere, the cops took it away) but i dont want it to ever return again! I have had lil mice before coming out of the oven and im assuming it may have come to feast on them. Please help! How can i prevent this from happening again
Corn snakes are commonly kept as pets..the one you saw was no doubt an escapee that had traveled through eh walls, etc. I’ve seen this many times when working for the Bx Zoo, and it is always an isolated event. It’s upsetting, I know, but this is not likely to happen again. I would take care to plug holes, set traps etc in order to eliminate mice, which are a far greater health concern than are corn snakes. Best, frank
How many reptile and amphibian species are actually living in the five boroughs of New York City?
This list covers Manhattan and SI, as well as Long Island…most of those listed on LI can be found in the north Bronx. This year I rec’d photos of young milk snakes taken in N. Manhattan and Pelham Bay park. Best, Frank
I haven’t heard about Northern Red-Bellied living in any of the boroughs. I have heard Northern Ring-Necked Snakes living in Staten Island and Eastern Ribbon Snakes in the Bronx? I would be interested if you seen any of these species within the five boroughs.
I read recently Dusky Salamanders have been found living in the Botanical Gardens. One interesting find for me on the non-herp side I recently seen a deer at Pelham Bay Park where I have heard a population has been established. Pelham Bay Park is so vast and wooded for a city park it must be a good place for herping. Keep up the good work.
Thanks for the kind words. Ring necs are on SI; I’ve not seen ribbon snakes in the Bx, but definitely possible in Pelham. It is an amazing place…I’ve been meaning to write more on the other animals there. I,ve seen nesting great horned owls…would not be surprised if coyotes show up; red fox there in past, maybe still. Flying squirrels…much more.
Thanks for the note on deer and dusky salamanders…I hadn’t heard. Duskys are on the grounds of the Bx Zoo, along with red backs, and in Inwood park perhaps. I rec’d photos this month of hatchling milk snakes found in Inwood (which has skunks now also) and Pelham Bay. A deer made it into NY Botanical gardens a few years back; wall lizards (introduced) est there as well.
Check out Kiernan’s The natural History of NYC…written in the ’50’s, but still relevant and a great read.
Thanks for your interest, pl keep me posted, best, Frank
Are there Northern Red-Bellied, Hognose Snakes and Smooth Green Snakes living within the five boroughs of NYC? I have seen a Black Racer in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge a few years ago.
As for deer they are quite common in Staten Island with beavers living in the Bronx River and fishers being sighted in the Bronx recently.
I have read coyotes have established a small breeding population in Pelham Bay Park and Van Cortlandt Park. I have seen woodchucks, skunks and wild turkeys in all places by the Cloisters in Manhattan.
Staten Island supposedly still have spotted and mud turtles. Other species maybe living within the five boroughs are mink, pickerel frogs and weasels. I don’t think there is a updated published book that identifies all the herp and mammal species within the five boroughs
You really don’t need to go outside the five boroughs to see wildlife especially if you like birds.
Hognose are at Breezy Point…we introduced (BX ZOo / US F&W ) years ago, and they have est a breeding population. Red-Bellied, Green..hard to say, some were released there, others seen on occasion, but I can’t be sure. No thorough surveys.
I know of the beaver that showed up on grounds of BZ, and they are further north..are there more within city limits? Have fishers been definitely documented?…that would be amazing, pl let me know if you have a chance.
Cloisters area was one of my fav collecting sites, from ’60’s on/. Coyotes made it into BZ in past, Van Cortland, even Manhtn; had not read any updates, but breeding population sounds reasonable. Turned up in Queens and Suffolk as well!
Mud Turtles are on ST Is, likely Jamaica bay area as well..they seem to stay in brackish water here in the city, and on LI (suffolk, fire island). Spotteds are often collected once a population is found; co-worker at zoo lived on SI, and I did a good deal of work for the zoo there…no recent reports I’m aware of.
Mink/long tailed weasel “should ” be here and there…they are adaptable enough to remain out of sight; both were on Bx Zoo grounds into at least the 60’s; I trapped there sporadically from early 80’s to early 90’s w/o getting either, but not an organized effort. lots of short-tailed shrews though, pine voles reported; a gray fox was trapped in the late 7o’s. Meadow voles possibly a pygmy shrew, flying squirrels common.
Did you see this news item re a new leopard frog on St Island...genetically-based, but still…
We kept a bird list when I was at the zoo – 230+ species as I recall, others in Bot Grdns.
Check out F Lutz’s “A Lot of Insects”…many of the species he lists are within city limits, others found since then.
A husband-wife team wrote a NYC Wildlife type book within last 10-15 years, but not very well done. A former BZ curator, E. Riscuiutii, wrote one some years back…mammal oriented I think; some omissions but not bad as I recall. The Mammals of LI, NY..paperback, gov publication I believe, is excellent, but written in the 1960’s.
Thanks for jogging my memory, please keep me posted, best, frank
A fisher was identified living in the Bronx just last month in the news. There were numerous stories in the news around June about this. I read last year that they found two otters in Staten Island unfortunately they were not found alive. Supposedly there are at least two beavers and maybe more in the Bronx River section of the Bronx.
Other species I have seen in Staten Island Turkey Vultures, Bronx wild turkeys and in Inwood Hill Park bald eagles. I am sure other than porcupines, bears and bobcats most of the mammal species you might found in Bear Mountain are probably living somewhere in the five boroughs on NYC. I wouldn’t know about herps though to be honest but I would be interested if you knew.
Thanks for the update…fisher info is very interesting…last month was hectic for me, and I missed it somehow. This DEC checklist of NY State herps, birds and mammals seems decent, although I’ve not gone over carefully. Hopefully I’ll be able to go through and check off NYC herps, or to locate a list I came across recently.
A road-killed otter showed up on SI while I was working at the zoo there, 8 yrs ago. Several on LI in the past few years…I saw a female with 3 kits 6 years ago, in Huntington Bays.
Best regards, Frank
It’s too bad there doesn’t seem to be an actually list of mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians living in NYC.
There are species that are probably not documented that are living in the city. I was reading that gray and red foxes are most likely living in some of the Queens and Bronx Parks?
Have you documented pine voles or other small mammals living in NYC.
I need to go over my notes and various reports someday, can likely come up with something decent.
Red fox have been seen in Alley Pond Park Queens in the last few years, sporadically in the Bx Zoo and Bot Gardens (Bot Gardens had a resident, paid naturalist for a time, which was very useful. I’m sure they are elsewhere..Pelham Bay; if coyotes proliferate fox will likely be driven out or killed, however. Mink recorded in Pelham Bay and jamaica bay in the 60’s,,,”should” still be there.
A co-worker at the zoo found reports of pine voles in the area along the Bx River, behind the Jungle World building (now a co-generation power plant); they and a butterfly found only in alder groves were considered very rare in the region…both likely gone now. I have a bat list somewhere…have personally handled injured red, large brown, small brown and eastern pipistrelles in the Bx and Manhtn; all recorded for NYS are documented in the city; co-worked found black (roof) rats..introduced but long believed gone, due to pressure from Norway rats; he also believed eastern as well as New England cottontails were onsite.
Others I’ve seen include feral Bl. Tailed (I believe) Jackrabbits at Kennedy Airport, short-tailed shrews, deer mice, meadow voles, possibly pygmy shrews , eastern mole, n. flying squirrel, eastern coyote (all on BZ grounds) in addition to the expected raccoons, muskrats, possums, chipmunks, etc.
Unexpected creatures from the collection that I’ve had to track down and capture after storms, mistakes and such include a Kodiak bear (twice!!), snow leopard, red panda, gorilla, gibbon, nyala antelope, axis deer, saurus crane and so on (not that such things happen anymore….!). While I was working at the Prospect Park Zoo, someone tossed a domestic ferret into the prairie dog exhibit..perhaps recognizing it as a relative of their nemesis, the black-footed ferret, the plucky rodents beat the heck out of it…a co-worked was able to retrieve it just in time! Best, Frank
I live in the midwood section of Brooklyn and i spotted a snake in my backyard for the second timi in 2 months. It about 18 inches and a dark color. Should i be concerned. Please help me.