Samantha Zahringer watched this coachwhip eat the lizard by her back door. Her kids saw the snake raise its neck, sway for a moment, then strike quickly. Two other lizards nearby froze while the snake swallowed. When the snake finished, the lizards finally moved away.
Habitat, early spring, San Gorgonio
Pass desert, Riverside County
Habitat, Inyo County desert
Habitat, San Bernardino
Habitat, Riverside County desert
Habitat, San Diego County desert
Habitat, desert flats, Kern County
Habitat, Los Angeles County desert
Habitat, desert on the CA Border,
Nye County, Nevada
Habitat, San Diego County
Habitat, San Diego County
Habitat, coastal San Diego County
Coastal habitat, San Diego County
I saw this Red Racer foraging in the desert in San Diego County before it saw me. After turning in my direction, it saw me, raised its head off the ground in a state of alert, wiggled its neck back and forth while holding its head still, then turned around and raced away over the rocks into a bush.
A juvenile Red Racer ready to shed its skin is found under a board in Riverside County then races away into the grass.
Not Dangerous (Non-poisonous) - This snake does not have venom that is dangerous to most humans.
Adults are 36 - 66 inches long (91 - 167 cm.) (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2012)
The only longer snake in California is the Gophersnake.
Hatchlings are about 13 inches long.
A slender fast-moving snake with smooth scales, a large head, somewhat forward-facing eyes with round pupils, a thin neck, and a long thin tail.
(There is no well-defined stripe lengthwise on the body in this species.)
Large scales above the eyes.
17 rows of scales at midbody.
The braided appearance of scales on the tail (like a whip) gives this species its common name.
Color and Pattern
Color is variable; light brown, pink or reddish above.
The dark coloring is interspersed with light coloring creating a banded or saddled appearance, with dark coloring surrounding the light scales.
Dark (often black) blotches across the top of the neck, sometimes with white, sometimes with body color, inbetween.
(Sometimes the neck and much of the head are solid black.)
Color typically changes to a solid tan or reddish coloring along the length of the long thin tail.
Black and yellow phases of this subspecies are found outside of California.
Young have blotches or crossbands with dark brown or black on a light brown or tan background.
Black markings on the neck may be faint or not present.
Life History and Behavior
Active in the daytime. Able to tolerate high temperatures.
Moves very quickly.
Coachwhips are good climbers, able to climb bushes and trees.
Often seen moving quickly even on hot sunny days, but often seen basking on roads in early morning or resting underneath boards or other surface objects.
Frequently run over by vehicles and found dead on the road, partly due to the tendency of this snake to stop and eat small road-killed animals.
Often strikes agressively when threatened or handled.
Diet and Feeding
Eats small mammals including bats, nestling and adult birds, bird eggs, lizards, snakes, amphibians, and carrion.
Hatchlings and juveniles will eat large invertebrates.
The ability to tolerate high temperatures enables
this snake to hunt heat-dependant lizards when they are active. High speed allows it to run down the fast-moving
Hunts crawling with head the held high above the ground, occasionally moving it from side to side to aid in binocular vision and depth perception.
The prey is overcome and crushed with the jaws or crushed beneath loops of the body then eaten without constriction.
An adult Red Racer was observed swallowing the head and neck of a live Southern Pacific Rattlesnake that it had pinned to the ground with its body.
(Herpetological Review 45(2) 2014)
The lifespan of a Coachwhip is approximately 13 years in the wild, and 20 years in captivity.
(Stewart, H. 2018. Animal Diversity Web.)
Presumably mates in May and lays a clutch of 4 - 20 eggs in early Summer (June - July). (Stebbins, 2003)
Eggs hatch in 45 - 70 days.
Inhabits open areas of desert, grassland, scrub, and sagebrush, including rocky, sandy, flat, and hilly ground.
Avoids dense vegetation where it cannot move quickly.
Takes refuge in rodent burrows, under shaded vegetation, and under surface objects.
The species Coluber flagellum - Coachwhip, occurs very widely across the southern half of the U.S. from southern California east to Florida, and far south into Mexico, including northeast Baja California.
The subspecies covered on this page, Coluber flagellum piceus - Red Racer, is found throughout southern California from Ventura county to the Baja California border and north around the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains though the Great Basin desert into northwestern Nevada, and south through Nevada and much of Arizona to part of Sonora and Baja California. It apparently intergrades with C. f. ruddocki in eastern Kem County. It is missing from much of the urbanized coastal portion of Los Angeles County due to land development.
The species is found from below sea level in the desert to around 8,250 ft. (2,515 m). (Stebbins, 2003)
Notes on Taxonomy
Coluber flagellum was formerly Masticophis flagellum
North American snakes formerly placed in the genus Masticophis have been changed to the genus Coluber based on a 2004 paper * by Nagy et al. Utiger et al. (2005, Russian Journal of Herpetology 12:39-60) supported Nagy et al. and synonymized Masticophis with Coluber. This has not been universally accepted. The most recent SSAR list has hinted that the genus Masticophis might be re-instated: "Burbrink (pers. comm.) has data to reject Nagy et al.’s hypothesis but we await publication of these data before reconsidering the status of Masticophis."
Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.
Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.
Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.
Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Snakes of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Bartlett, R. D. & Alan Tennant. Snakes of North America - Western Region. Gulf Publishing Co., 2000.
Brown, Philip R. A Field Guide to Snakes of California. Gulf Publishing Co., 1997.
Ernst, Carl H., Evelyn M. Ernst, & Robert M. Corker. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.
Wright, Albert Hazen & Anna Allen Wright. Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press, 1957.
* Z. T. Nagy, Robin Lawson, U. Joger and M. Wink. Molecular systematics of Racers, Whipsnakes and relatives (Reptilia: Colubridae) using Mitochondrial and Nuclear Markers. Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research (Volume 42 pages 223–233). 2004
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the November 2020 California "Special Animals List" and the November 2020 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.
This snake is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.