favourite moments # 7 – eastern milk snake

With the weather warming up here, this may be the last favourite moments from the past for awhile, as I should soon be back to reporting mainly live sightings.

The photos in this post are all of a juvenile Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) encountered near Mississagagon Lake, north of Kaladar, Ontario, on Sept. 11, 2003. We had just arrived at a small public boat launch area and were taking our canoe off of the van roof, when Don noticed this snake on the gravel just a few feet away. I shot several photos of the snake while it was on the move.

Juvenile snakes of this species are often quite brightly marked, with rich, reddish-brown blotches outlined in black on a pale background. The underside of the snake is pale with dark marks such as those in the photo on the left which I shot while gently turning the snake over with a twig. Milk snakes may be distinguished by the distinctive marking on the head, which is described as “Y” shaped, but which can vary quite a bit.

Although the snake in the above photo may look large, it was actually quite small — perhaps about 30 cm (12 inches) long. Adults of this species range from about 60 to 120 cm (24 – 48 inches) in length. The adults I’ve seen had markings that were more brown or drab than those of the junvenile in this photo.

The common name of this snake has to do with the mistaken idea that these snakes somehow drank milk from cattle. In fact, they hunt for small rodents and other small prey, often around barns, which may be how the myth came into being.

This snake moved with its head somewhat raised and body sliding along in a sinuous, undulating fashion as it made its way across the fine gravel of the parking area. When approached, it would sometimes draw its head back, raising it a little as though attempting to be menacing (see below). The adult Milk Snakes that I have encountered, have rattled their tails (a sort of rattle-less rattlesnake imitation), and raised their heads into what I would describe as a striking position. Apparently, they will bite if provoked – but then, who wants to provoke a snake?

My encounters with Milk Snakes have been by chance, usually around a road where one has been crossing. I’ve never gone out searching for them, but I’ve read comments on snake forums written by people who have reliably found these snakes beneath boards, shingles and such things in meadows and around old farmhouses or barns.

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11 Responses to “favourite moments # 7 – eastern milk snake”

  1. Dave Says:

    Wow, I’ve never seen such a reddish milk snake as the one in your first photo!

    I don’t know what it would take to provoke a milk snake. I’ve handled many of them, and they never attempt to bite or urinate on my hand the way garter snakes do. They are as close to cute as snakes can get.

  2. burning silo Says:

    Dave – It was very brilliant and reddish when seen up close, but I’ve been told that’s common in juvenile snakes. It was certainly a lot more brilliant than some of the adults I’ve photographed. I haven’t picked up any of the milk snakes I’ve seen. Their behaviour might have been considered a bit defensive, but I wouldn’t say it was feisty. I’d agree with your “cute” description – especially this particular young snake. By the way, the one and only snake that ever bit me was a garter snake – one that had definitely been “provoked” by one of my cousins before he tossed it on me (I was about five or six years old at the time).

  3. Xris (Flatbush Gardener) Says:

    How beautiful. It’s something I miss living in the city: encounters with snakes and other reptiles.

    I suspect that my neighborhood, with its detached houses, porches, and garages could support some snakes, but I’ve never seen one. Maybe because there are too many cats.

  4. Celeste Says:

    Hi! waht a pretty snake, I reeeeeallly wanna hear you say–“Mississagagon Lake, north of Kaladar”–the M word sounds very snaky!

  5. Cathy Says:

    OK. I have to admit that when I clicked on your blog and this picture popped up I went “Yikes!” That is a fantastic photo. As you said – the snake looks quite large. And again, I’m compelled to wonder why it would have such bold markings. What’s adaptive in this?

  6. John Says:

    My immediate reaction was fascination…but I also thought of the coral snakes that I saw, on occasion, in south Texas as a kid…they were beautiful, but horrifically poisonous. And so close in coloring to their nonpoisonous cousins…we never knew which ones to avoid and which ones to appreciate for their beauty.

  7. burning silo Says:

    Xris – Yes, cats can be hard on snakes. When we had a couple of cats around the farm years ago, they used to kill garter snakes and leave them on the front porch or hanging over a small bush next to the steps. I would also think that anywhere near cities, some herp collectors, much as it is illegal, sometimes collect wild amphibians and reptiles. That’s definitely a problem up here and one of the reasons why biologists studying such creatures as Spotted Turtles (which are quite rare here) do not circulate any information on the populations that they study.

    Celeste – Yup… Mississagagon has a *very* snaky sound about it! (-:

    Cathy – I was thinking that it was a little unfair to post these snake photos after just writing about arachnophobia. Well, look at it this way — you’ve just had a little snake desensitization session here at my blog. (-:
    Regarding the markings, I suppose it could be one of those cases where this species evolved to look somewhat the same as some of the venomous snakes such as John mentioned in his comment. However, I’m actually inclined to think that the markings simply provide good camouflage as this snake became next near to invisible as soon as it moved from the parking area into the dappled shade of the forest. Even looking right at it with my camcorder, I started to lose sight of it almost immediately.

    John – That’s one of the things I don’t think I’d like about living in an area with venomous snakes. Although I’m not particulary nervous of being bitten by one — having done a fair bit of hiking in Arizona, I do give it some thought — but I have a hard time “remembering” to be at least slightly cautious about where I step in case there’s a snake underfoot. I think that comes of growing up where, with just one exception — a rattlesnake with a very restricted territory — we have no other venomous species. It’s difficult to go form one way of thinking to another.

  8. Cathy Says:

    Snake desensitization . . . OK. So, I bravely clicked on it again to MAGNIFY it. Yikes! I feel queasy. Man! I’m having trouble with that head. So I try to intellectualize it. Hmmm. I wonder where the eyes are . . . hmmm over there perhaps. I located the eyes. Still bad. Headed for the Maalox:0)

  9. burning silo Says:

    Cathy – You’re getting braver if you’re experimenting with magnification now! Interesting that the snake’s head would bother you. Maybe better not concentrate on the head… enjoy the splotches… or that little T-shaped pattern on the top of the head. Then again, maybe better not look at the jumbo sized version! (-:

  10. jg Says:

    do milk snakes bite you?
    because i was thinking of getting one as a pet but would rather not if they bite
    thank you

  11. burning silo Says:

    jg – I don’t actually know much about keeping milk snakes (or any other snakes) as pets. Up here in Canada, we can’t collect wild reptiles and amphibians to keep as pets, so I have never tried keeping one. That said, I did a check online and it seems that people do keep some subspecies of milk snakes as pets. A couple of references mentioned that it’s best to get a snake from a reputable breeder who offers healthy, parasite-free stock – and depending on where you live, this may be the only legal way to acquire a milk snake.
    As for the biting part, many species of snakes will bite if provoked, but don’t if they are handled gently. From what I understand from the little I’ve read on keeping pet snakes, there’s quite a bit of variation in snake behaviour even within a species. Some snakes are mild-tempered and don’t usually bite, while others are quick to bite. I’ve never been bitten by a milk snake, so I can’t tell you if it would be painful. The best advice I can think of is to do more reading about the species — perhaps check out some of the online discussion boards where people discuss pet snakes (I’ve seen a couple of those around the web) and find out what others have to say about the species you’re interested in keeping.