The Coachwhip – a colorful snake

The Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) is a fast, colorful, non-venomous, but sometimes aggressive snake that can get up to eight feet long, but most are three to five feet long. Coachwhips come in a variety of colors including tan, gray, pink, black, reddish-brown, or any combination of these colors. Broad cross bars are common. The red coachwhip is most widespread in the Sonoran Desert. A black phase occurs in Tucson and the Tucson Mountains. I saw a coachwhip in my backyard recently; its front third was black; the rest red.

Coachwhip1

These snakes range throughout the southwestern United States south through Baja California and Mexico (except the Sierra Madre) and inhabit deserts, prairies, grasslands, woodlands, thornscrub, and even cultivated lands.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM):

“Active during the morning and late afternoon, the coachwhip is often seen crossing roads. A speedy snake, it has been clocked at 3.6 miles per hour. The coachwhip is a nervous snake and may retreat into rocks or rodent burrows when threatened, but it is just as likely to approach an intruder hissing, striking, and possibly shaking its tail; it will bite if handled. During summer, four to twenty eggs are laid, hatching 44 to 88 days later. Young and adults feed on mammals, birds, bird and reptile eggs, lizards, snakes, carrion, and insects; the prey is seized and swallowed without being killed.”

I’ve often seen coachwhips in the aviary at ASDM where they hide in trees and prey upon birds.

There are some myths about this, and similar, snakes. According to Wikipedia:

“The primary myth concerning coachwhips, that they chase people, likely arises from the snake and the person both being frightened, and both just happening to be going the same way to escape. Coachwhips are fast snakes, often moving faster than a human, and thus give an impression of aggression should they move toward the person. The legend of the hoop snake may refer to the coachwhip snakes.”

“Another myth of the rural southeastern United States is of a snake that, when disturbed, would chase a person down, wrap him up in its coils, whip him to death with its tail, and then make sure he is dead by sticking its tail up the victim’s nose to see if he is still breathing. In actuality, coachwhips are neither constrictors (snakes that dispatch their prey by suffocating with their coils) nor strong enough to overpower a person. Also, they do not whip with their tails, even though their tails are long and look very much like a whips.”

See the Article Index page for more stories of the Sonoran Desert.

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