I’m not a fan of most R&B/hiphop music, and I don’t even particularly like this song, but I couldn’t stop it from going through my head as I was doing the research for this page. It’s probably true that as a schoolkid, if I’d had a beautiful big Eastern Milk Snake like this it would’ve attracted a lot of attention. I spotted it basking on the road earlier this week. There wasn’t any sun, but the road pavement would still have picked up enough of the radiation that did manage to pierce the clouds to be just a bit warmer than the surrounding vegetation. Concerned for his longevity should he continue to stay there, I got out of my car, ran a few photos off, and then shooed him back into the nearby ditch with the help of a longish stick.
Strictly speaking, the milk snakes, while they can give a painful bite, are not dangerous in the sense of being lethally venomous, so the stick was mostly to ensure my skin remained intact. It doesn’t use venom to subdue its prey, but instead catches it with its teeth and then constricts it to kill it. It is primarily a nocturnal hunter, and tends to be hidden during the day, under or behind objects. As adults their diet mostly consists of small rodents such as mice, but they’re opportunistic feeders, eating anything it can catch that’s small enough to fit down its throat, from birds’ eggs to frogs to invertebrates. A young milk snake will mostly eat invertebrates befitting its much smaller size.
The Eastern Milk Snake is actually a subspecies of the Milk Snake, Lampropeltis triangulum. The Eastern is the nominate subspecies, L. t. triangulum. There are 25 recognized subspecies of Milk Snake, ranging from southeastern Canada south to Ecuador and Venezuela in South America. In North America the Eastern has perhaps one of the largest ranges of the milk snakes that are native to here, found in deciduous forests from Quebec and Maine, west to eastern Minnesota, and south to northern Alabama. Different subspecies will achieve different lengths, ranging from 50 to 150 cm (20 to 60 inches). This one was on the smaller side of that range, perhaps a couple of feet.
Red Milk Snake (L. t. syspila), by Mike Pingleton, from Wikimedia Commons
Some of the other subspecies are known as kingsnakes, and/or resemble the highly venomous coral snakes. It’s surprising to think that the above snake is actually related to the one that we find around here. In fact, some of the milk snake subspecies may eventually be split off into their own distinct species, but for the time being they’re all one group. In the south, the venomous coral snakes can be told from the non-venomous milk snakes by a rhyme that goes, variously, something like, “red beside black, you’re okay Jack, red beside yellow, you’re a dead fellow.” If you look closely at the Eastern Milk Snake you can begin to see how the blotches may have started out as bands (or vice versa).
If disturbed, the Eastern Milk Snake will sometimes rear back and rapidly vibrate its tail in the ground litter. This can sound a little like a rattle and with the brown spots along the back the species can sometimes be confused for a rattlesnake – obviously to its advantage since nearly everything will back away from the threat of a rattlesnake. The individual I came across was either too cool still to be active, or completely unconcerned about any threat I posed. I was able to get quite close (slowly, cautiously) with the macro lens on the camera, and it just sat there until I pushed it gently with the stick to encourage it to move.
The Eastern Milk Snake resembles a couple other species found in the east. Both the Fox Snake and the Copperhead have similar blotchy patterns, but the milk snake is more slender, and has a distinctive pale Y or V just behind the head. Since coral snakes don’t occur this far north, it’s likely that the milk snakes of this region have evolved to resemble the venomous snakes that do, both in behaviour and appearance. This is called Batesian mimicry, when one non-venomous/poisonous species evolves a visual appearance that resembles another species which is, such that the non-venomous species benefits from predators’ experience with the real ones. The same thing is seen with the Viceroy butterfly, where they superficially resemble Monarchs through the north, and Queens through the south, according to the unpalatable species in the region.
The name Milk Snake may have come from the species’ habit of frequenting barns and barnyards, where there are plentiful rodents and cool, dark interioris. A myth arose from this association that it would suckle cow teats for the milk. The myth is false, but the name seems to have stuck.
Milk Snakes lay eggs to reproduce. They mate in early May to late June and lay the eggs in June or July in sheltered spots such as beneath logs or rocks. The clutch of about 10 eggs, on average, hatch after about two months, in late summer. Like with most species, the first year of life is the most dangerous and the youngsters run the highest risk of death while they learn the ways of the world, but once they’ve made it through that first year they can potentially live as long as 12 years.
In Ontario and Canada the Eastern Milk Snake is a species of special concern, and it may be partially due to persecution, run-ins with cars, and other human-related causes of death. However it’s apparently also a popular snake in the pet trade (probably more so the brightly-coloured subspecies of the south). To try to avoid this individual from becoming another casualty, I coaxed it over to the nearby ditch where it slowly slithered into the grass. When I peered over the edge to where it was sitting, its defensive response finally kicked in, and it coiled up its front part to show me it wasn’t afraid to strike if I got too close. I respected its privacy now that it was in a safer spot and returned to my car. Safe travels, buddy.