Black snake moan

If you’re a regular reader of The Morning Porch on Twitter or elsewhere, you know I’ve been following the progress of a northern flicker nest in the dead elm tree on the other side of the yard. I first noticed the presence of a pair of flickers around the house back on April 30:

And then on May 5, three days after Rachel’s arrival, I spotted a flicker doing more than the usual tapping:

Male and female took turns excavating. A week later, they were still at it — not surprising, given that flicker nest cavities are said to be 13-16 inches deep, widening toward the bottom.

I was reminded of the lines from Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks:

I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door.

It opens.

I’ve been knocking from the inside!

Rachel posted some photo documentation of the flickers to her blog twisted rib on May 15. Sometime shortly after her departure on the 17th, they finally stopped excavating. The following week, the 5-8 eggs must’ve been laid, because by the last week in May they were beginning to take long shifts inside the cavity — a sure sign of incubation. Subsequent Morning Porch updates gave evidence of a fierce territoriality, as they chased off a pileated woodpecker, a downy woodpecker and another flicker from the vicinity of their nest hole. Were they being over-reactive, or was their den really so highly coveted?

Given the incubation period of 11-13 days, I figured they’d be hatching sometime this week. Yesterday morning, both parents were outside the tree at the same time for up to 15 minutes, so I thought perhaps the blessed day had finally arrived. Around 3:30 in the afternoon, I went out on the porch to read and again noticed both parents outside. The male sounded agitated, but then woodpeckers always sound agitated. The female sat on a dead branch of the elm a few feet above the hole. I was already looking forward to breaking the happy news to Rachel when I noticed something sticking out of the cavity. I got out the binoculars and saw this:

black rat snake in flicker nest hole 1

And then I realized why the Carolina wren had been making so much noise earlier. A black rat snake had somehow figured out that a succulent meal awaited it 25 feet up the nearly smooth bole of the dead elm — and had then managed to climb it.

black rat snake in flicker nest hole 2

As I watched, the snake stuck its head out farther, some ten inches, and looked all around as if trying to decide whether to descend right away or digest its meal for a bit. After a few minutes, it looped back in.

This morning I had to go in town to run a few errands, and when I got back at 10:30, the snake was just leaving the hole. There was an unusual thickness to its body about 18 inches back from the head, but not the distinct bulges one sees in a snake that has just swallowed eggs or nestlings a short time before.

I watched for the next 50 minutes as it ever so slowly descended the tree, studying all the alternatives each time before moving to a new knot, branch or other protrusion where it could gain some purchase. (I want to say “foothold,” but that’s not right, is it?) It used a tall lilac limb to transition from the trunk to a dead branch that arched up from farther down the tree, then followed that branch to a lower spot on the lilac:

black rat snake on dead branch

Much as I regretted what had happened to the flicker brood, I couldn’t help admiring the snake’s resourcefulness, especially given that it could only slither in one direction, forward. It was hard for me to imagine, for example, how it could have back-tracked once it was all the way out on a narrow, downward-bending branch with little purchase. And in any case, there’s something so inexorable and irreversible about a large snake on the move — it’s almost like watching time itself.

I’d thought that was the end of the show, but around three in the afternoon I came out just in time to see another snake climbing the elm tree. This one was longer — about six feet to the other’s five — and much speedier. It climbed the last ten feet to the nest cavity, poked its head in a little way, and in less than a minute gave up and began its descent. It too went into the tall lilac limb beside the elm trunk, but it didn’t mess around with the dead branch. It let its latter half fall into the lilac in its haste to get back down to the ground. What took the shorter (and much fuller) snake nearly an hour took it all of five minutes.

Do newly hatched nestlings give off some uniquely alluring smell that draws snakes? It’s hard to know what other signals they might’ve been following. Perhaps there’s a snake equivalent of a Russian hackers’ website where directions to vulnerable sites are posted?

The Google tells me that “Black Snake Moan” was also the name of a band and a 2006 movie, but I just know the original Blind Lemon Jefferson song. Here it is.

Where, wonder where this black snake gone?
Where, wonder where this black snake gone?
Lord, that black snake, mama, done ruined my darling home.

18 Replies to “Black snake moan”

  1. Dave, What a cool post. Again, so much of it is about trees. What sends a rat snake up a tree…an alluring smell? Good question. Another question, maybe not good: Were rat snakes disappointed when the Passenger Pigeons were deleted? (Did they eat them?) Were they happy when the elms and chestnuts died, creating long-standing and convenient snags? There’s a lot about rat snakes that has not been explained.

    1. Wow, I’d never thought about the passenger pigeon, but I’m sure you’re right — as the only major tree-climbing snake in the east, the black rat snake must’ve been hugely impacted by its demise. I have seen them deep in the woods; I don’t think they’re just an edge-dweller.

  2. Even the dead elm seems to be moaning. I feel as though robbed of lovingly awaited grand-chicks. It reminds me of the old rhyme – Algy met a bear. The bear met Algy. The bear was bulgy. The bulge was Algy. Especially that last picture where the snake so carefully navigates its distended belly along the contours of a narrow branch.

    The google says flickers can have a second brood – but even if they did, presumably the same thing would happen all over again. They’d become the black snake take-out of choice.


    1. “The black snake take-out of choice.” (!!!) They best not be putting up billboards to advertise that in the woods.

    2. The google says flickers can have a second brood

      Oh, it does? I just said the opposite to Robbi below. I’ll have to consult my mother’s library — the most authoritative sources aren’t online.

      I didn’t realize until I got my pictures out of the camera how much that portion of the elm tree looked like something howling.

    1. Good point. I had that thought, too. Though I guess this particular couple won’t be trying again this year — the Cornel Lab’s webpage says they only have one brood.

  3. Watched a black rat snake climb a tree once in my backyard. Easily 6 feet and a bit disconcerting to see how quickly it did it–the tree (dead or dying) was close to my house. I think I called the tree removal people within a week.

    1. Fortunately the dead elm is far enough away to pose no threat to the house. It’s great having dead trees nearby for wildlife-watching purposes. Not only do things nest in them, but there’s no pesky vegetation to confound users of cameras and binoculars. I suppose some neighbors might get uptight if you started girdling your yard trees, though.

  4. Thank God you write, because I don’t have the knowledge, perception, or patience to discover the drama that must happen right under my nose, even here in suburbia. Wonderful post.

    I was messing around with the new Twitter feature on an install when I saw your own Tweet about it. It’s a good-looking embed and easy to favorite from. I’ll wait for a patch for my blog’s theme before installing 3.4 there, but thanks for some ideas here.

    Also looking forward to some (finally!) decent-looking captions on WordPress. I gave up on captions so long ago that I’ll have to retrain myself to think that way.

    1. Well, I’ll bet if you wern’t working insanely long hours at your chosen profession, you’d be able to train yourself to observe and write at least as well as I do. I don’t bring any real observational skills to this, believe me! It’s mostly a matter of putting my sedentary habits to good use.

      Yes, the ability to insert HTML in captions is long overdue. I used it to good advantage already in my mom’s website at, where the feature has been in place for several weeks. It’s so handy for linking back when using Creative Commons-licensed illustrations.

      1. When I tried posting a dozen Tweets (a best-Tweets-of-May experiment) in a single post, though, the load time became unconscionable. I’ll have to use the new Tweet embed feature in moderation, as you do here.

        1. I saw that post. I didn’t notice too heinous a load-time, but you can always use a “read more” link to keep most of it off the front page and archive pages.

  5. This is kind of a horror-movie/nature-film mash-up. I’m sad — I’d taken on a little bit of flicker-grandparent feeling too — and you know how I feel about snakes (fascinating but creepy). But that’s the natural world. I wonder about the scent, too, Dave, or what it was that attracted the snakes. You’ll have to keep track of the tree next year and see if another set of birds tries it again. Great photos,by the way.

    1. I’m sure they can see the hole from the ground, and as a commenter on Facebook points out, the parents’ activity was a bit of a clue, but what led two snakes up the tree in a little over 24 hours? Seems like too big a coincidence for it to have been the sight alone. (They don’t hear.)

  6. Wonderful photos but sad outcome — as Beth says, a horror show — though I wonder why we are so firmly on the side of the birds. I second Peter in praise of your patience in observing.

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