Baby Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum)
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19 Astonishing Facts About Milk Snakes

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Milk snakes are a fascinating species of nonvenomous snake found throughout North and South America. With their vivid red, black, and white banding, milk snakes are often confused with dangerous coral snakes. However, milk snakes are completely harmless to humans.

Read on to learn more about these docile serpents!

Appearance

1. Milk snakes have smooth scales arranged in rows. They have between 19 and 23 rows of glossy scales running the length of their bodies. These scales come in a dazzling array of colors including red, black, yellow, and white.

2. Their patterns mimic venomous coral snakes. This “aposematic coloration” warns predators that milk snakes are dangerous too. In reality, they are harmless, but the coloration protects them from predators.

3. Several subspecies exist, each with distinct markings. The two dozen milk snake subspecies have their unique combinations of color bands. Some have thinner bands, some have red blotches, but all have the characteristic tri-color pattern.

Behavior

4. Milk snakes got their name from an old folktale. As the story goes, milk snakes would sneak into barns at night and “milk” the cow’s udders. Of course, snakes don’t drink milk, but the legend stuck.

5. They aren’t milk thieves – they hunt rodents in barns. Drawn to the warmth and shelter, milk snakes often live in old barns and farms. But rather than stealing milk, they hunt the mice and rats that also live there.

6. Milk snakes are nocturnal and solitary. They spend most daylight hours hiding under rocks or logs. After dusk, milk snakes emerge to hunt alone. During winter, some gather communally to hibernate.

Facts About Milk Snakes

Habitat

7. Milk snakes occupy diverse habitats, from deserts to forests. As habitat generalists, milk snakes thrive across North and South America. They inhabit meadows, forests, deserts, suburban areas, agricultural land, and more.

8. They shelter underground or in abandoned structures. When not hunting at night, milk snakes seek shelter under rocks, dead wood, abandoned mammal burrows, or old barns and farms. Anywhere dark, warm, and secluded.

Diet

9. Milk snakes eat small mammals, birds, eggs, lizards, and more. From slugs to rabbits, milk snakes eat most small animals they can overpower. Young snakes start with insects and graduate to larger prey.

10. They kill prey by constriction. Like boa constrictors and pythons, milk snakes squeeze their prey to death before swallowing them whole. Their flexible jaws allow them to eat animals wider than their heads!

11. Milk snakes have some resistance to venom. Since they sometimes eat venomous snakes like rattlesnakes, milk snakes have developed some immunity. The venom won’t kill them, but it still causes illness.

Breeding

12. Milk snakes breed from May to June. After emerging from winter dormancy, mature males seek out females by following pheromone trails. Multiple males may court a single female.

13. Females lay about 2-24 leathery eggs in summer. Using an ovipositor spur on her tail, the female deposits eggs under logs, in burrows, or in compost heaps. She provides no further maternal care.

14. Eggs incubate for 9-10 weeks before hatching. The parchment-shelled eggs are vulnerable to predators and climate, with low hatching success. Babies average 8-13 inches long at birth.

Defense

15. When threatened, milk snakes may flatten their heads. To appear more intimidating, milk snakes flatten their necks and heads to look like deadly vipers. If that fails, they may strike out or release a foul musk.

16. Their dazzling colors say “Don’t eat me!” Milk snakes’ red, black and white bands signal toxicity, warning predators like hawks, foxes, and coyotes to stay away. This keeps milk snakes safe from harm.

Conservation Status

17. Milk snakes face no major threats. Highly adaptable and widespread, milk snakes thrive across their habitat range. They are classified as a species of Least Concern by conservation groups.

18. They often fall victim to humans who mistake them for coral snakes. Many well-meaning people kill milk snakes, thinking they are the deadly coral snakes they resemble. Educating the public is critical to milk snake conservation.

19. You can help milk snakes by improving their habitat. Installing cover boards around your property gives milk snakes a place to shelter and hunt. Limiting pesticide use also provides more snake prey like mice and voles.

Frequently Asked Questions about Milk Snakes

1. What is the geographic range of milk snakes?

Milk snakes can be found in a wide geographic range, from southeastern Canada and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, south to Mexico, Central America, and into Colombia and Ecuador.

2. What is the typical habitat of milk snakes?

Milk snakes prefer to live in forested regions or areas of open woodland, but they can also be found in swamps, prairie, farmland, rocky slopes, and dunes. They may also migrate seasonally, moving to higher/drier habitats for hibernation during the winter.

3. What do milk snakes eat?

Young milk snakes typically eat crickets, insects, slugs, and earthworms, while adults primarily consume small mammals, lizards, birds, frogs, fish, and other snakes. They are known to be nocturnal hunters and are often found resting during the day in old barns and under wood.

4. How do milk snakes reproduce?

Milk snakes are oviparous, laying an average of about 10 eggs per clutch. The mating period occurs from early May to late June, and the eggs hatch around August or September. These snakes typically live around 12 years in the wild and up to 21 years in captivity.

5. What is the conservation status of milk snakes?

The milk snake is listed as of least concern by the IUCN, but in some areas, it may face significant pressure due to pet-trade collection. Due to their attractiveness in the pet trade, many subspecies are now being bred in captivity for sale.

So whether you spot one crossing the road or spy a hatchling in your garden, remember that milk snakes are harmless helpers! Their rodent control makes them friends to farmers and gardeners alike.


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