The first wild snake I encountered as a child, on a dead-end street in the Bronx, measured a mere 10 inches long. However, it excited me as much as did the huge anacondas and pythons I visited regularly at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos, and the American Museum of Natural History. That particular Northern Brown or DeKay’s Snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi) escaped, but you can bet I searched nonstop until I found another! Happily, this adaptable little serpent continues to hang on in the most unlikely habitats…each year I receive several in need of rehab, collected in busy Manhattan neighborhoods. This overlooked snake has much to offer reptile enthusiasts. It can be comfortably-housed in a 10 gallon tank, does not eat rodents, and it’s the young are produced alive, eliminating the hassle of egg-incubation. Brown Snakes are ideal candidates for naturalistic terrariums stocked with live plants, and when kept so they will exhibit a wider range of natural behaviors than can be expected from large snakes – it’s just far easier to provide them with all that they need. As a career herpetologist, I’ve gone on to care for and observe in the wild the same huge snakes that entranced me so long ago…yet I still maintain Brown Snakes, and watch them in my yard at every opportunity.
Brown Snake Description
Slender and graceful, the Brown Snake averages a mere 9-13 inches in length, although exceptionally-large individuals may reach 20 inches. The largest I recall handling measured 14.5 inches.
Most are clad in various shades of brown (no surprises there!) or tan, but some individuals sport an attractive reddish or yellow hue. Brown Snakes are often confused with Garter Snakes, but may be distinguished by the two lines of black spots that run along their backs.
Range and Habitat
The Brown Snake is one of North America’s most widespread and common snakes. The seven subspecies range from southern Canada through much of the USA through Mexico to Guatemala.
Equally at home in fields, swamps, forest edges or suburban yards, the Brown Snake’s secretive ways also allow it to survive in parks and overgrown lots in urban areas. It is often the first (and, in NYC, the only!) snake to be found and brought home by curious children.
In undisturbed habitats, it shelters below leaf litter, fallen logs and rocks. Big city Brown Snakes utilize old tires, boards, sheet metal and other rubbish as hiding sites, and often do very well if left alone. Not long ago, I uncovered a very dense population sandwiched between a busy commercial area and a major roadway in Queens, NYC. I was once called to a busy Bronx street to remove one that was uncovered when a stoop was being demolished. Given the nature of the area, this individual likely spent most of its life within the concrete channels of that stairway! Amazingly, I’ve also found Red-backed Salamanders living in similar situations.
A single Brown Snake will do fine in a 10 gallon aquarium; a 20 gallon will support 2-3 adults. The tank’s screen lid should be secured by cage clips.
Unlike most snakes, Brown Snakes do not fare well on newspapers, or in bare enclosures. Their terrarium should instead be furnished with a mixture of a rainforest-type reptile substrate (i.e. Zoo Med Forest Floor Bedding) and coco-husk; I like to add dead leaves as well. Many individuals will shelter below the substrate, but caves, bark slabs and cork bark should also be provided.
Pothos, Chinese Evergreens and other hardy plants, or naturalistic plastic plants, will help your snakes to feel comfortable. Once they settle in, you can expect to see a wide variety of behaviors.
Light, Heat and Humidity
Both humid and dry areas should be provided. A cave stocked with moist sphagnum moss makes an ideal moist retreat.
Although UVB light is not essential, some experienced keepers believe UVA exposure, and low levels of UVB, may be beneficial for other diurnal, insectivorous snakes. The Zoo Med 2.0 would be a good choice if you wish to experiment.
Brown Snake Breeding
Well-adjusted Brown Snakes often delight their owners by reproducing. Five to thirty young are born alive at various times from spring through fall. Measuring only 3 to 4 ½ inches in length, newborns might easily be mistaken for earthworms were it not for their alert demeanor. A short cooling off period and reduced light cycle may encourage breeding, but this does not seem essential.
The natural diet includes earthworms, beetle grubs, slugs, caterpillars and other soft-bodied invertebrates. In some habitats, Red-Backed Salamanders and the young of other woodland species, and small or newly-transformed frogs, are taken as well (please see photo). Pets do fine on a diet of earthworms, waxworms, calci-worms and butterworms; mealworm pupae, housefly larvae, and canned silkworms are accepted by some individuals. I also collect and offer cutworms and other smooth caterpillars, beetle grubs and slugs (please see articles linked below).
While vertebrate prey is not needed, some believe that insectivorous snakes should be provided with calcium supplements. I’ve not found this necessary for individuals kept on a varied diet anchored with well-fed earthworms. For snakes fed a more limited diet, a once weekly dose of ZooMed Repti-Calcium, or a similar product, might be useful.
Brown Snakes do best when fed several small weekly meals. Allowing earthworms and other invertebrates to establish themselves in the terrarium will provide your pets with hunting opportunities, and yourself with much of interest to observe.
Shy and always on guard (they are on the menus of a great many predators!) these little snakes can rarely even be induced to bite. Stressed individuals may release musk, but most take short periods of gentle handling in stride. However, they are lightly-built and are best considered as a poet to observe rather than handle frequently.