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Cross Timbers Wildlife News - Jim Dillard
September 2003



Jim Dillard is a Wildlife Biologist for Texas Parks & Wildlife. He writes from Mineral Wells TX.

Masticophis flagellum testaceus

Coachwhips

We take a lot for granted wading through thick knee-high broomweeds here in Cross Timbers Country. You usually can't see your feet and you sure as heck can't see what all might be down there around your ankles you're about to step on. My philosophy is to just walk fast and hope for the best. Finding a downed dove or bobwhite is next to impossible unless you make a beeline to it or have a good birddog. Following a droughty year and if the rains fall just right, we'll have a bumper crop of broomweeds during late summer here in Northcentral Texas. Such was the case a few years back when the drought broke and broomweeds came up thick'er hair on a dog's hind leg. Doves were everywhere.

The first dove I shot that year fell like a sack of rocks about 30 steps to my left and, of course, vanished into the broomweeds. Half way to it, I felt that old familiar squishy feeling underfoot and found myself standing on what looked like an old piece of rope. Only difference was, the other end of that "rope" had reared up above the broomweeds and was looking back at me. It didn't take me long to figure out which end was the business-end of the western coachwhip snake I was standing on. As I took a backward step, he went zipping away through the broomweeds in one direction and I went the other. I never did find that dove. Over the years, I've had many other unexpected encounters with these amazing serpents.

Western coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum testaceus) are found throughout the western two-thirds of the state and are one of our longest Texas snakes. Adults average 4-5 feet, but specimens over 6 feet have been reported. They're typically light tan or yellowish brown, but some individuals may have narrow barring patterns. There is considerable color variation throughout their range. Their "hissing cousin", the eastern coachwhip subspecies (M. f. flagellum), is found in east Texas. They typically has a uniform dark brown head and forward one-third of their body, fading gradually to light brown or tan toward the tail. However, there is also considerable variation in this subspecies as the dark color may be confined to the head and neck only or the forward half of the body. Some are entirely dark or black with a reddish tail.

Both subspecies have two longitudinal rows of dark spots on the underside of their throat and forebody. Coachwhips get their name from the light-to-dark crosshatch patterning of their tail. Each dorsal (top) caudal (tail) scale is two-toned with the forward portion being paler than its trailing edge, giving the tail that "braided coachwhip" appearance. If you're into herpetological particulars and want to count them, they have 17 rows of smooth dorsal scales on the forebody and 13 in front of the divided anal plate. I'll do the counting if you'll hold the snake!

Western coachwhips prefer open, arid or semi-arid country with sandy or rocky terrain where they hunt for small mammals, small birds and their eggs, other snakes, lizards, baby turtles, frogs, and large insects. They're active only during the daytime and retire to animal burrows or crevices to spend the night. Even during the heat of the day, they're active and you're likely to find one when and where you least expect. The last one I came across was wrapped around a limb at about eye-level in a clump of brush I was wading through. It had an uncompromising disposition and was reluctant to yield the right-of-way. Rather than tangle with him, I backed out and found another route.

When foraging for food, coachwhips often travel with their forebody elevated above the ground with head held horizontally, scanning for any movement of potential prey such as lizards which are their favorite. Some hunt by ambush, lying coiled near the base of a tree and lashing out when prey comes within striking range. Since they're not constrictors, prey are bitten, held and then maneuvered into position for swallowing. They can also "track down" prey by following scent trails. I have a photo taken by Mark Mitchell, a wildlife biologist friend of mine who works at Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area near Mason, Texas, of a western coachwhip with a tail on both ends. The coachwhip was in the process of swallowing a bullsnake Mark had seen run over on a road earlier that day. Apparently, one dead snake on the road was worth two in the bush for this hungry coachwhip! Coachwhips are often preyed on by hawks and their young by roadrunners.

Their cruising speed is about 4 mph, so they can out-crawl and overtake most other snakes, lizards and "wildlife biologists nearing retirement age". I've tried unsuccessfully to catch a few coachwhips, but they always got away by crawling in a clump of brush or slithering up a tree. I don't recommend grabbing hold of one unless you know what you're doing as they have no qualms about biting the fire out of you if given half a chance. They'll also expel a bunch of foul-smelling gunk on you from "you know where." When cornered and coiled, they'll often vibrate their tail against leaves or other objects, making a rattlesnake-like buzz that will get your attention.

Coachwhips mate during April or May. In May or June, females lay 1-2 inch long granular-surfaced eggs in loose soil, decaying logs or stumps, or under vegetative debris. They incubate for 6 to 12 weeks before hatching in August or September. Young snakes are 12-14 inches long at birth and are usually tan to yellowish brown and marked with prominent dark crossbars on the forward part of their body.

Coachwhips are like a lot of other snakes we encounter - most won't hurt you, but they'll make you hurt yourself. The thrill and exhilaration of seeing and hearing a coachwhip z-z-z-z-zinging through the grass or broomweeds between your feet, just trying to get out of your way, is an experience not soon forgotten. It'll make your heart beat a little faster for a few seconds and remind you that you're seldom alone when you're out and about here in Cross Timbers Country.

Until next time - I'll see you down the road and God Bless America!



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