Milk snakes are nonvenomous snakes that live in North and South America. These snakes, often confused for coral snakes or copperhead snakes, are part of the kingsnake species of snakes. A total of 24 subspecies of milk snakes exists.
There are a few distinguishing features that will help you to identify a milk snake – although you never want to get too close to an unknown snake.
Let’s look at a few facts about milk snakes that every reptile enthusiast should know.
- Confusion with copperheads and coral snakes
- Milk snakes habitat
- Hunting and diet
- Reproduction and lifespan
- Endangerment information
- Scientific classification
- Milk snake communication
- Main predators
Milk snakes benefit from looking like coral snakes because predators are scared away by coral snakes. These snakes have the following characteristics that can help you tell them apart:
- Size: 20 inches to 60 inches in length
- Pattern: White-black-red or red-black-yellow
- Texture: Smooth and shiny
- Bands: 19 – 23 bands of color are present
You’ll also need to consider the many subspecies of the eastern milk snake that do not resemble a coral snake. These snakes often look like scarlet king snakes, which are very similar in appearance to the poisonous rattlesnake.
Juveniles have a deeper reddish color to them.
Male and female milk snakes do not exhibit sexual dimorphism, so these snakes look virtually the same and are the same length and color. The beautiful appearance and lack of threat to humans make the milk snake a great option for breeding in captivity.
Milk snakes are not helpful snakes, but they lack venom, meaning they’re normally harmless. You likely won’t see this snake in the daytime, as they’re mostly nocturnal. They’re terrestrial, too.
If the day is cool, a milk snake may break from its normal habits and come out during the day.
These snakes do not like hot days, and they will find rocks or logs to hide under to keep cool in the hot sun. Since these snakes are solitary in nature, you don’t have to worry about them traveling in large groups.
Confusion with copperheads and coral snakes
The color of a copperhead and coral snake is very similar to that of the milk snake. The similarities include:
- Bright coloration
- Blotchy colors
Scientists state that the milk snake uses the similar color as a mimicry, or a defensive strategy. Predators know that coral and copperhead snakes are dangerous, so they’re far less likely to attack them. But, if you want to be able to tell these snakes apart without fear of going to the hospital, there is an easy way:
- If bands are round and thick, it’s a milk snake
- Hourglass shape blotches belong to the copperhead
- Coral snakes have red and yellow bands next to one another
- Milk snakes have black and red bands next to each other
It’s vital to be able to distinguish each of these venomous snakes from their nonvenomous counterparts.
Milk snakes habitat
Milk snakes call North America their home, with records of these snakes as far south as Venezuela and as far north as Quebec. These snakes have the longest range in the world, and this allows them to live in a variety of different environments.
These snakes also live in Mexico, and they live everywhere in the United States except the west coast.
When trying to find red milk snakes in the wild (or any species), you’ll mostly find them in:
- Forested areas
- Under rocks
- Agricultural areas
- Coastal bush areas
During the day, these snakes like to hide away under rocks, in logs, or under any sheltering the keeps the sun at bay.
The night-time temperature drop will lure out these snakes.
Hunting and diet
Contrary to popular myth, one of the concrete facts about milk snakes is they do not go out and seek the milk of animals. Instead, they subsist off a diet of mostly rodents, including:
- Bird eggs
An interesting fact is that the milk snake has no issues eating other snakes, even if they look similar. It’s not uncommon to find a milk snake eating its venomous counterpart: the coral snake.
While not dangerous to humans, these snakes are very powerful constrictors, allowing them to wrap tight around their prey and kill them. These snakes will wait until the heart of their victim stops before they devour them.
Reproduction and lifespan
What you may not know is that the milk snake can live a long time. How long? It depends. In captivity, these snakes can live up to 22 years. But no one knows for sure how long they can live in the wild.
We do know that they reach full maturity between the ages of 3 and 4 years old.
A few of the most interesting facts relating to the milk snake’s reproductive cycle are:
- Females release pheromones for males to follow
- Copulation can last hours
- Mothers lay eggs
- Eggs are laid 30 days after copulation
- Females lay 2 – 17 eggs at a time
- Incubation can last 1 – 2 months
- Hatchlings are 6 inches in length
Snakes aren’t the best parents, and they’ll have no further involvement with their offspring once the eggs are laid. Females will lay their eggs in logs or under rocks. Females will bury the eggs when there is not a suitable place to hide them from predators.
This species will mate between March and May.
Rumor has is that copulation may be extended to prevent other male snakes from copulating with a female.
Hatchlings will have very bright colors and are too small to eat birds or mammals when they first hatch. Instead, baby snakes will eat invertebrates until they grow large and strong enough to kill bigger prey.
Exact milk snake numbers in the wild are unknown. This causes a problem for these snakes because they’re a species of concern in some states in the United States. With that said, there is no federal protection for the milk snake.
The large area of inhabitation of these snakes makes it unlikely that they’re going to go extinct any time in the near future.
But hotter temperatures will cause these snakes to change their habitats. It’s very possible that we’ll see milk snakes leaving very hot areas to go to more comfortable climates. There is a reason they don’t appreciate the western states – it’s too hot for them.
The milk snake is part of the Animalia kingdom, Chordata phylum, Reptilian class, Squamata order, Serpentes suborder, Colubridae family and Lampropeitis genius.
Milk snakes are considered part of the Lampropeltis triangulum species.
Milk snake communication
Communication among snakes is still a thing of mystery for some species. Science does know a few facts of importance, such as the milk snake using the following senses to perceive their environment:
Vibrations also play a major role in how these snakes communicate. What’s interesting is that snakes will leave chemical trails to communicate, too. Females often stay in their “home”
during mating season, but there are times when they will venture out.
The female will lure males to her by leaving a scent, or a chemical trail of pheromones, behind for the male to follow.
So, even if these slithering reptiles don’t speak vocally, they can use their scent to send messages to other members of their species. But until otherwise noted, we may never know the full extent that these snakes can communicate.
Snakes are part of the food chain. Animals will eat snakes just like they do any other source of food, and this leads to the question: what are the main predators of the milk snake? There are numerous dangers in the wild, including:
These are just a few of the animals that will look for a tasty milk snake to eat.
The milk snake is known for being cunning, so you’ll often find that they rattle their tale to mimic the rattlesnake in hopes that the predator will run the other way. If the snake can make itself look dangerous, it has a higher chance of survival and will be left alone to forage in the wild for any rodents that come its way.
But the mimicking nature of the snake leads to another predator killing the milk snake: humans. Out of fear, many humans will see a milk snake rattle its tail and kill it when they can. This is no fault of the human, who is unsure if the snake is venomous or the non-threatening milk snake.
A lot of farmers know something the average person doesn’t: the milk snake and humans have a very close relationship. When they live near barns, they will become a part of the farm by killing rodents and other pests that like to feed on animal feed or crops.
Farmers welcome the sight of this species because they play a vital role in pest control.
And since they do not contain venom, they’re not a threat to children or workers on the farm. It’s the perfect match of man and wild.
There are 24 subspecies of milk snake, and this can cause a lot of confusion because some species look a lot alike. But there are some species that are more common and deserve to be known due to their popularity and distinct differences.
1. Eastern milk snake
Eastern milk snakes are the most common (bet you thought it was the red milk snake). These snakes are slender and have blotchy bands that are reddish-brown in color. A few of the most interesting facts about this snake are:
- They live primarily in the Northeastern United States
- Their bellies are black-on-white
- Eastern milk snakes can grow up to 4 feet in length
You’ll also note that these snakes have blotches that are quite distinct, which will allow you to tell them apart much faster.
2. Honduran milk snake
Honduran milk snakes are beautiful to look at, with a bright, reddish-orange color followed by bands of white and yellow. Lighter orange colors can be seen extending down their sides, while stripes will go across their belly.
These snakes are interesting because:
- They make a popular choice for pets
- They grow 4 feet in length
Aside from these two neat traits, they’re rather similar to other snakes in the same species.
3. Pueblan milk snake
If you’ve ever eaten Mexican food before, you’ll quickly recognize the name “pueblan.” While this name has nothing to do with the poblano pepper, it does derive from Puebla, Mexico. But these snakes are also found in Morelos and Oaxaca, Mexico.
Popular pets, pueblan milk snakes feature:
- Red, black and white bands
- Red bands about twice the size of other bands
- Small size of 2.5 feet
- Band colors of red, black and white
One of the neat facts about milk snakes of this subspecies is that the band colors they normally have out in the wild has been morphed when bred in captivity. What this means is that the snake may be born with a different pattern of bands or even different colors.
Pretty neat, huh?
4. Red milk snake
Red milk snakes are often much smaller in size compared to the other subspecies we’ve discussed, and they’re a common form of milk snake. These snakes feature:
- Lengths of 21” – 28” are most common
- An aggressive disposition makes them unfavorable pets
These smaller snakes can be found across the United States, mostly in west Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. They’re often seen in Missouri and Kansas, too.
Reddish banded blotches with black rims are a defining characteristic of this snake. The bands they have include white, yellow and tan.
5. Nelson’s milk snake
The Nelson Milk snake has a predominantly black snout with little white flecking. These snakes are found in Jalisco, Tres Marias Islands and northwestern Michoacán. Tropical forests and coastal bush areas are the most common habitats of this subspecies.
A few facts about this subspecies many people don’t know are:
- The average adult is 42” in length
- Captive lifespans are 12 – 20 years
- They have 13 – 18 red rings
- They will consume anything
If you plan to keep this snake as a pet, they prefer corn-cob-type rodent bedding. A fun pet to own, the key to ownership is to keep the enclosure clean and dry. Since these are tropical snakes, you’ll also want to keep the daytime temperature around 80 – 85F.
There are numerous other snakes of this species worth noting, including:
- Central Jalisco milk snake
- Mexican milk snake
- Guatemalan milk snake
- Ecuadorian milk snake
- Pale milk snake
Milk snakes often make great pets, but you need to make sure that you do your best to mimic the habitat of this species.