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What Is a Milk Snake?

A milk snake.
Milk snakes occasionally eat earthworms.
Raccoons hunt milk snakes.
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  • Written By: Lynndee Molyneaux
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2014
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A milk snake, Lampropeltis triangulum, is a species of snake found in a wide variety of habitats and geographical regions. In the United States, milk snakes generally range in length from 24 to 36 inches (about 60.96 to 91.44 cm), though they can reach lengths of up to 52 inches (about 132 cm); milk snakes found in other parts of the world generally range in length from 12 to 69 inches (about 30.48 to 175.26 cm), with the longest snakes typically found in neotropical regions. A colorful pattern is characteristic of the milk snake. Its body is usually light gray or tan with large rust, brown, yellow, orange, red, or white blotches enclosed by black or colorful borders on its back. Smaller blotches of the same color line its sides and its belly is covered in an irregular black and white checker pattern.

The milk snake gets its name from an old folk tale. As the story goes, this particular snake would drink the milk of cows and nursing mothers until they were dry. Although the story is not true, the name stuck.

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Habitats of the milk snake vary and typically include deciduous and coniferous forest edges, tropical hardwood forests, streams, marshes, woodlands, prairies, savannas, rocky hillsides, agricultural areas, and suburban areas. Milk snakes can occupy areas as low as sea level and as high as 8,000 feet (about 2.4 km). They can be found in most areas east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States; in south-central Ontario, southeastern Ontario, and southwestern Quebec in Canada; and in non-arid areas of Mexico and Central America.

The milk snake is covered in smooth scales, giving it a typically shiny or glossy appearance. Its exact colors depend of which of the 25 known subspecies it is, with males and females having no sexual dimorphism in color. The milk snake's appearance can sometimes be similar to that of the venomous copperhead or coral snake, but the milk snake has a distinctive light colored Y- or V-shaped patch on its head. This adaptation may sometimes protect the snake from predators.

Males and females probably mate in the spring before they emerge from their hibernation quarters. The female usually lays anywhere from two to 24 eggs in the spring or early summer, and typically deposits them under rocks, in rotting logs, in small mammal burrows, under piles of debris, or in rotting vegetation. After the eggs are deposited, the parents play no further role in the upbringing of their young, as the eggs should naturally incubate in the warm, humid areas that the females choose for them. Generally, the eggs must be incubated for a period of 28 to 39 days before they hatch.

Newly hatched milk snakes seem to feed primarily on other young snakes. Milk snakes are typically brightly colored when they are young, and their color tends to dull with age. At three to four years of age, most milk snakes reach maturity. Their full life expectancy is uncertain.

The adult milk snake's main food source is small rodents, such as mice, rats, and voles. In this way, milk snakes can benefit humans because they tend to kill the rodents that lurk around barns and trash areas. They occasionally eat birds, bird eggs, frogs, fish, insects, earthworms, slugs, lizards, other snakes, and snake eggs as well. Milk snakes kill their prey by constriction and then swallow them whole.

As a primarily nocturnal animal, milk snakes are rarely spotted by humans during the day. Although they do not shy away from areas occupied by humans, milk snakes are usually hidden from view, occupying areas under rocks, logs, trash, or other cover. Milk snakes are solitary animals and are rarely observed in groups except during hibernation.

Animals such as coyotes, skunks, foxes, and raccoons hunt milk snakes. As a protection mechanism, milk snakes vibrate their tails, which make them sound much like rattlesnakes. For this reason, humans sometimes mistake harmless milk snakes for venomous rattlesnakes and kill them. Milk snakes are generally not a very aggressive animal but they do tend to bite when handled or threatened.

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