Nothing Corny About Corn Snakes
When it comes to a tractable pet snake that’s easy to care for, look no further than the corn snake (Pantherophis guttata). Long touted, and deservedly so, as the best snake for beginning snake keepers, the corn snake nevertheless remains a favorite among veteran snakekeepers, too. Different theories exist as to why this snake, which is actually the red rat snake, has come to be known as the “corn” snake. One is because of the snake's tendency to inhabit areas around corn storage facilities, such as cribs and silos, where it hunts rodent prey. Another theory is the name resulted because the snake’s light-and-dark checkered belly scales resemble the pattern found on Indian corn. Either reason sounds plausible, so pick the one you want to side with.
A corn snake doing its best ball python impression.
Before the explosion of stunning ball python morphs in recent years, the corn snake was already blazing the trail. H. Bernard Bechtel paved the way for the corn snake’s tremendous popularity when his work with the snakes resulted in the first captive-hatched amelanistic (albino) corn snakes in 1961. Other breeders, especially Kathy and Bill Love, took corn snake breeding to a new level of excitement, and their work with corn snakes resulted in many morphs that did much to invigorate the reptilekeeping hobby as a whole, and snakekeeping in particular. Let’s face it, the corn snake is a beautiful snake to begin with. A normal Okeetee corn snake, with its bold red, orange and black coloration, is one of the most attractive snakes there is. Okeetee is an area in South Carolina, and the corn snakes from that region are usually considered the cream of the crop. Even so, some eye-poppingly beautiful corn snakes have resulted due to captive-breeding efforts over the years, and now a dizzying assortment of mutations keep snake enthusiasts anxious with anticipation to this day.
Aside from its beauty, the corn snake rests on other laurels that qualify it as a perfect pet snake. First and foremost is its temperament. The corn snake is not prone to biting and usually tolerates handling very well. Sure, there may be individuals that are exceptions to the rule – aren’t there always? – but corn snakes are famous for being docile snakes that rarely exhibit aggression. Take note, those of you who may conduct reptile presentations at elementary schools and other public venues. A corn snake makes an ideal snake ambassador when showing reptiles to groups of people who are not used to being around them. They may lack the dramatic effect of a 10-foot python, but there’s also a lot less risk involved, which can be nice if you’re showing the snakes to very young children.
Corn snakes are members of the Colubridae family of snakes. In addition to rat snakes such as the corn, gray, Emory’s and others, this family encompasses kingsnakes, gopher snakes, milk snakes and other popular pet species. Depending on the geographic area where a corn snake or its parents originated, adult corn snake size can range from about 2½ to 6 feet in length. Even the 6-footers aren’t as thick as a boa or python, so housing for them is not terribly problematic. A 60-gallon terrarium would suffice for the larger specimens; a 20 gallon works for smaller ones. Of course, the rule is always to provide as large an enclosure as you can manage.
The setup doesn’t need to be fancy. The absolute basic would be a newspaper substrate, though one of cypress mulch or aspen bedding looks nicer, is more absorbent and offers the snake the added activity of burrowing more easily than does newspaper, though corn snakes will crawl under newspaper, often to go to the bathroom. A hide box is mandatory for snake security, as is a water bowl with clean water. Heat can be provided via the usual methods of lights and/or heat tape, mats, etc. I recommend full-spectrum lighting, even though other people say this is not mandatory for snakes.
Temperatures need not be excessive in any direction. Standard room temperature in the 70s Fahrenheit up into the high 80s is fine for corn snakes. A moderately humid environment will be necessary when a corn snake needs to shed. If a screen top is used on the enclosure, a portion of it may need to be covered with plastic wrap while at the same time raising the heat level slightly and misting the enclosure lightly with water. Don’t drench it!
As with any snake, enclosure security using a locking or securely latched lid is of primary importance. I’ve never met a snake that wasn’t an expert escape artist when given the opportunity. Remember, snakes are pretty much one big muscle, and if they can get their chins over the lip of the top of an enclosure, they can often pull their whole body up and over.
Feeding corn snakes is a cinch. Give them appropriately sized rodents, starting with pinky mice for hatchlings. As your pet corn snake grows, so can its rodent prey items. As with any snake, never leave live rodents in a snake cage unattended. You definitely do not want your snake to get chewed up by a rat. Feeding frozen/thawed prey not only eliminates a possible injury to the snake, the freezing process would kill any parasites that may be in a live rodent. Let frozen rodents thaw naturally; don’t microwave them. I used to set mine on a sunny windowsill for awhile prior to feeding them to my boas and kingsnakes. If necessary, you may need to jiggle dead prey items to elicit a feeding response from a snake. Long forceps work well for this.
The corn snake is by far the most popular rat snake in the pet industry, and one of the most popular snakes, period. Keep one, and you’ll no doubt discover why.