Bullsnakes vs Rattlesnakes

Confused about the differences in bullsnakes and rattlesnakes?  Bryon Shipley, Denver Zoo keeper and rattlesnake researcher at the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora, Colorado, can help clear up some myths and misconceptions about these two snakes.  Read his comments below:

Typically, myths about rattlesnakes vs. bullsnakes are one of the following:

  1. Bullsnakes eat rattlesnake eggs.
  2. Bullsnakes eat rattlesnakes.
  3. Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes breed together.
  4. Bullsnakes chase away rattlesnakes.

Other Myths:

  1. Bullsnakes kept in your tent keep rattlesnakes away.
  2. Bullsnakes kill rattlesnakes for sport.
  3. Bullsnake bites are worse because of the infection that results.
  4. Bullsnakes are venomous.
  5. Bullsnakes eat all of the rattlesnakes’ food.

Reasons for myth creation between these two snakes:

  1. Bullsnakes eat  rattlesnake eggs:  Since rattlesnakes do not lay eggs, this cannot be true.  Rattlesnake eggs hatch within their bodies; consequently young rattlesnakes are born live.
  2. Bullsnakes eat rattlesnakes:  A thorough search of the literature and discussions with researchers who study both snakes has revealed next to nothing that supports the idea that bullsnakes eat rattlesnakes.  Bullsnakes are primarily consumers of warm-blooded prey.  In one instance, the body of a small rattlesnake showed up in the gut of a bullsnake, but no information exists on whether the ingested rattlesnake was already deceased or even what species it was.  It is possible that a young bullsnake may eat a lizard, but no rattlesnake population could be significantly affected by bullsnakes.  The natural mortal enemy of rattlesnakes is, in fact, the kingsnake.   Additional information, Nov. 27, 2013:  An article I ran across says that it happens, but rarely and largely opportunistically.  In the particular study, looking at the guts contents of over 1000 bullsnakes, 2 rattlesnakes were found.  This is 0.5% of the entire list of prey items found.  We don’t know if the rattlers were constricted alive and eaten or scavenged, unfortunately.  The take home lesson is still that even eating one or two rattlers during its lifetime, for a bullsnake, this consumption rate is too small to exact any population control over rattlesnakes.
  3. Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes breed together:  Rattlesnakes and bullsnakes commonly hibernate together, along with other snakes and amphibians.  Rattlesnakes are live-bearers and bullsnakes are egg layers, and even within the reptile group, where breeding between species of like physiology can happen (i.e. egg layers with egg layers, live-bearers with live-bearers), successful breeding between egg layers and live-bearers could never occur due to the biology involved.
  4. Bullsnakes chase away rattlesnakes:  Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes have always coexisted in their habitat.  Their activity schedules in a season can be very different.  The sudden disappearance of rattlesnakes in mid-spring results from their switching to a nocturnal schedule, when they are not as noticeable as they were in early spring.

Differences in Ecology and Biology that Enable these two Snakes to Coexist:

  1. Rattlesnakes have a more variable diet (snakes, lizards, amphibians, and all types of warm-blooded prey).  Bullsnakes favor primarily warm-blooded prey and bird eggs.  Although bullsnakes eat many of the same prey as rattlesnakes, they eat them in different proportions.  Bullsnakes are more of an opportunistic generalist than rattlesnakes, because rattlesnakes tend to focus on one species at any one time, depending on availability and abundance.
  2. Rattlesnakes have a more efficient digestive system, requiring fewer meals per year than bullsnakes.  Bullsnakes eat smaller prey, but more of them.
  3. Prairie Rattlesnake
    Prairie Rattlesnake

    Rattlesnakes are mostly ambush hunters, preferring to wait for opportunities, once an area of active prey is found.  Bullsnakes are active foragers, investigating rodent holes, moving frequently, using more energy.

  4. Bullsnakes lay several large, calcified, shelled eggs that require lots of energy to produce.  Also, energy is required to dig a hole in which the eggs are laid and then covered up.
  5. Rattlesnakes give birth to live young after their eggs hatch internally, and these young are not encased inside a shelled egg.  The rattler does not have to expend energy digging a burrow for the eggs in a suitable environment.  The female merely carries them around, protects them, and provides them with adequate heat for embryonic development by moving her body in and out of the sun.
  6. Rattlesnakes are nocturnal most of the season, while bullsnakes remain mostly diurnal.  This difference in foraging schedules reduces competition for shared resources.
  7. Bullsnakes are constrictors, and rattlesnakes envenomate their prey.  Bullsnakes can subdue and eat an entire nest of rodents simultaneously, while rattlesnakes track down their prey after a strike, later consuming that animal after the venom has already begun to digest it.
  8. Bullsnakes breed annually in the spring, and eggs hatch in the summer.  Annual breeding requires being able to ingest lots of prey during the spring and summer to maintain high levels of energy for egg production.  A female rattlesnake will breed once every 1 1/2 – 2 years, beginning at about age 3, and deliver babies in the fall.  The energy requirement for rattlesnake baby production is still a factor, but spread over longer time span.

Harmless snakes are frequently depicted as being kindly and timid, while rattlesnakes are described as being vicious and aggressive.  It is easy to see why an aggressively responding bullsnake, who has a flattened head, can be easily mistaken for a rattlesnake.  You can see that these two snakes are very different in almost all respects. Food gathering, energy maintenance, and reproduction in time and space are differences that allow resources to be shared so that both snakes can coexist.

Primarily we are referring to the Prairie rattlesnake or the Western rattlesnakes, as taxonomy stands now, where they occur with bullsnakes in grassland ecosystems, but could include other rattlesnake species.  Rattlesnakes in rocky and/or montane habitats may not fully address these same issues as with Prairie rattlesnakes.

136 thoughts on “Bullsnakes vs Rattlesnakes”

  1. I just found a snake skin by my patio. I think it may be a bull snake. Do I have to worry about it hanging out under my patio? Do they usually shed their skin in the area they live in? I have two small dogs… I worry about them. Help!

    Reply
    • Hello Sheila, I must apologize for taking so long to respond to your question. I just recently found your letter. I’m not sure where you live, but I seriously doubt that your dogs are in any serious danger from what may be a bull snake. That species will target rodents (a good thing) as well as birds and their eggs and possibly other snakes. Finding the skin the patio only means that the snake just happened to be in that area when it came time to shed. Bull snakes usually move frequently and actually have no control as to where or when to shed. When they’re ready, they shed, so the next time that normal activity occurs, the snake could be some distance from your patio. I really don’t think you should be overly concerned for your dogs. Bull snakes put on a good act of acting “tough” which helps to dissuade predators for harming it. That bluff should be enough to convince the dogs to look elsewhere for any investigation.
      Good question! Thanks for writing and once again, I’m sorry about the delay.

      Reply
  2. The guy who does yard work here killed a bull snake in our shed. We live right outside southeast Tucson near the desert. Should he have called Animal Control instead?

    Reply
    • Hello Vivian,

      Having lived in the Tucson area for a short time, I’ve been aware of some groups who might be able to advise on snake relocation. The Tucson Hematological Society which has an active presence on Facebook, or by tucsonherpsociety.org would be a good source of information. In some cases, your local fire dept may be able to remove the snake. However as you mentioned that you live near the desert, home for a varied number of reptiles. I’m puzzled and disappointed that your landscaper arbitrarily killed a non venomous animal that eats its weight in disease-causing rodents. You shed may be a home for a number of rats and mice of many species. Packrats caused me many headaches on our property in the Painted Rock area. We experienced damage to vehicles, house and garden. They are one of the major sources of food for the bullsnakes (often called gopher snakes in AZ) I don’t think animal control would be interested but the other agencies mentioned most likely would.
      The odds are that another bull/gopher snake will appear nearby to capitalize on the food source. Hopefully, you’ll be able to advise your landscaper of the importance of allowing that species of snake to continue to help control the rodent population on your property.

      Thanks your important question!

      Reply
  3. Rattle snakes don’t hunt humans; given a chance they will escape from you to go hunt rodents. They represent a danger to the unwary, to those that choose to agitate it, dogs that are curious or aggressive toward it, and animals that may stumble upon it. Killing a rattle snake that doesn’t present an immediate danger is not justified. They are a part of nature.

    Reply
  4. Hi, yesterday I spotted a snake in the rafters of my barn. When I entered I only saw it because the barn birds were going nuts. It was too high up for me to identify the species but it was prairie dust color, a bit more than a foot long, and it’s tail simply went to a point – no buttons. Based on my research including this great article, I think it was a bull snake. Even though it’s gone now “they” say it will be back and if it’s harmless, I am fine with it.

    Reply
    • Hello Angela,
      Thanks for the question on the “barn” snake! Although you didn’t say where you live, the odds are that you’re in the West or Midwest where bullsnakes are at home. In other parts of the country, like the East or Southeast, the snake could be of one of the many ratsnake species. Bullsnakes are good climbers and will often ascend into trees or buildings in search for food, which in this time of year could be a bird’s nest for eggs or hatchlings. And with the birds reacting the way they were, it’s likely that there’s a nest nearby. Possibly a species of bluebirds or woodpeckers…you might look outside to see if there’s any holes that would be the front door of one of those species. Once the hatchlings have been eaten or have fledged, the bullsnake will look elsewhere for food. They do like birds but even more they are fond of rodents which usually are on the ground level. That’s why the snake is good to have around. If you have any livestock, you’ll have food which draws mice and rats which’ll draw the snakes to control the population.
      It’s good that you were able to tentatively identify the snake from a safe distance..it’s probably a juvenile bullsnake and could reach over 5 feet in length and more in the coming years. They make a habit of hiding from their predators like humans, cats and even raptors, so you were lucky to spot that guy/gal. I agree with your identification! Thanks for asking!!

      Reply
      • Thank you Chuck! I live in southeast CO, sorry I didn’t mention that. A cowboy friend took a look and confirmed it isn’t a rattlesnake. Then we noticed its very pink head, skinny body, tail down to a point which I called a Coachwhip and he called a Red Racer – which is apparently the same species, yes? S/he is now “my snake” keeping the balance of life in check in my barn. Great website!!!

  5. I don’t like snakes of any kind. To me the only good snake is a dead snake. Any snake found in my living space is killed on the spot. I live in the middle of the Pawnee National Grasslands. I have plenty of dogs and cats that keep the mice and rats population under control. My cats will even kill snakes. My chickens are really good at eating juvenile snakes. So we really don’t see to many snakes. Which for me is a very good thing. I was almost bit by a rattlesnake last year. It actually hit my pants. Good thing I was wearing loose fitting pants. My question is are rattlesnakes evolving to no longer have a rattle. I read somewhere that so many rattlesnakes are being killed by humans that they need to evolve to no longer have rattles. Is this true?

    Reply
    • Hello Joan,

      The thought regarding rattlesnakes losing their rattles has been discussed frequently over the past many years. Evolution moves so slowly that even if that were the case, we wouldn’t be aware of the change in our lifetime. There is one species of rattlesnake on an island off southern California that doesn’t have rattles, but that’s about it. The reason this question comes up frequently is because rattlesnakes DON’T always rattle when approached. People who watch a rattlesnake think just because it isn’t rattling, that the species is changing its behavior. And on the other hand, rattlesnakes don’t have to rattle before striking either. The rattle developed thousands of years ago to alert bison in the prairie of danger nearby.

      I’m very familiar with your part of CO, having spent many years exploring the area around the Buttes, camping in Crow Valley campground and other areas of Weld and Morgan counties. Even though your livestock does a good job controlling the reptile population on your property snakes do have a place on the landscape. Bullsnakes, for instance will eat about 10 times the number of rodents that a rattlesnake will but has the unfortunate situation of looking like and behaving like the one species of rattler that is found in Eastern Colorado.

      Thanks for your comments.

      Reply
  6. Great article! This warm day I encountered a snake that was coming out of a gap between landscape bricks and our sidewalk. We live very rural in the canyons NW of Spokane WA. The snake was a Gopher snake, and with a hard Rake, I gently encouraged it to rummage for food elsewhere, as my wife would prefer. It crossed the driveway and I let it go its way. Returning ten minutes later, there was another slightly smaller gopher snake milling about near the other. They were both around 5 feet long. I watched as the first snake (the larger) moved into some rocks where I always had thought was a good place for snakes to hang out. The other took off down the gentle hill where it encountered a third gopher snake! Wow! My house is gopher snake central today! These two snakes went at it. Wondering if it was mating. It’s mid may right now. One had a good grip on the other just behind the head with its mouth. They writhed and moved in a jumble when the one broke the hold and took off fast. I’m not sure what to make of all this, but seeing as how there are this many gopher snakes during the day, I won’t be venturing out at nights when the rattlers would be out similar!

    Reply
    • Hi Tom,

      Yep! What you witnessed with the gopher snakes was certainly a lovefest! After spending a long cold winter underground they will emerge in the Spring with only one thing on their mind (at least for the males) and it’s to find a girl and reproduce. Not always an easy thing to do and they will frequently bite the female on the back to keep her from escaping. But enough males are successful and the female will lay anywhere between 3 and 24 eggs, depending on her size, which will hatch in two to three months. With that in mind, keep an eye out this August for the little guys and gals which will be a foot to foot and a half in size. And they actually could be quite active that time of the year because it’s important to eat a meal before heading underground for a long winter’s sleep. And, then next May, the whole scenario starts over again, so keep an eye peeled.

      Great observation, Tom! Some parallels there that remind us of our highschool years!

      Take care, and thanks for caring about our neighbors underfoot!

      Reply

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