On Myths and Milksnakes



One of the most common, yet misidentified, snakes in Northern New England is the Eastern Milksnake. Unlike species such as Northern Watersnakes, which are often confused for similarly-patterned Copperheads or Cottonmouths, the Milksnake is mistaken not only for Timber Rattlesnakes, but also another venomous species that doesn’t actually exist: the “checkered” or “spotted adder”. Early European settlers who had some familiarity with the venomous adders of Europe likely thought the Milksnakes here looked similar, and unfortunately this centuries old case of mistaken identity persists today, resulting in many of these harmless snakes being persecuted across the northeast. Common knowledge, especially in more rural areas, is that these spotted snakes commonly found around barns and stone walls are highly venomous and that a bite from one will make you sick, when in actuality nothing could be farther from the truth. On top of that, many who correctly refer to the species as a Milksnake have been informed at some point in their lives that they got their name from their propensity to steal milk straight from the udders of livestock in the barns they frequent. I can’t think of a single other non-venomous species with so much myth and misinformation surrounding it, so I thought this month it would be helpful to go over factual information about this unique species and hope that by doing so, I might also help endear this species to at least a few people who aren’t all that fond of snakes to begin with.

Usually a shade of tan in their background color, Eastern Milksnakes have circular red or brown spots on their back, outlined in black, and a light "Y" on the back of their heads.

Milksnakes vary in color and pattern across their range, but one thing that is true just about everywhere they occur is that they are mistaken for local venomous species. This is not helped by the fact that in much of their range they mimic the coloration of venomous species such as Coralsnakes, which deters many predators from attempting to eat them. Topping off around three feet in length, the ones in Northern New England do not resemble Timber Rattlesnakes all that closely and are typically tan in color with round red or brown spots outlined in black running down their backs, and they usually have a light Y-shaped mark on the back of the head.

Younger Eastern Milksnakes tend to have more brightly contrasting colors, with a lighter background and redder blotches on the back. This individual lacks the "Y" on the back of the head, but you can see that it is partially present.

When Eastern Milksnakes feel threatened they will sometimes coil their bodies and vibrate their tails, very convincingly mimicking the sound of a rattlesnake, and will even start striking out in the direction of the approaching predator or human. They may also flatten their head such that it resembles a triangle (as any snake can do), adding to the confusion as to whether it is venomous or not. The strikes are a total bluff, though, as their bites are far less harmful than accidentally brushing up against a raspberry bush. Alarming perhaps, and you might get scratched if you attempt to handle the snakes, but they will not attack or chase you and cannot cause any real harm even if you deliberately put your finger into their mouths.

Milksnakes do not have fangs and their teeth are extremely small, so a bite from one (which only happens if you pick up the snakes) can do little more than scratch a human or any other animal larger than a rodent.

The reason Eastern Milksnakes spend so much time around barns has nothing to do with milk, but it does have to do with food. Any professional or hobby farmer will tell you barns are hot spots for mice and rats (I call my barn rat “Harold” though I have no idea if it is male or female and it could be five different rats). Milksnakes are constrictors, meaning they kill their prey by strangling it, and the ones in Northern New England feed mostly on rodents and small birds. If you are bothered by the snakes and want to keep them out of your house or barn, the best way to get rid of them is not to kill them, but rather to deter them from hanging around by eliminating their food source and cleaning up debris around the building in which they will hide. If you’re more troubled by the presence of rodents, then having a resident snake or two in your barn can actually be a very good thing, and the snake won’t eat your animals’ grain, let alone drink their milk! You can even encourage the snakes to take up residence by placing a pile of rocks in a warm location on the structure’s sunniest side.

Milksnakes can vibrate their tails, convincing some people that they are actually a rattlesnake, but Milksnakes do not have a physical rattle at the end of their tail such as the Timber Rattlesnake pictured above.

In Vermont Eastern Milksnakes are one of the most common species of snake and occur just about everywhere except the northeast part of the state and higher elevations where colder temperatures prevent their eggs from hatching before winter. Despite being widespread, abundant, and somewhat large, most people never have the chance to see an Eastern Milksnake and can be quite surprised when they finally spot one. It’s alarming for most folk to see a snake they are unfamiliar with, so I can understand why they make some people uneasy. With so many rumors flying around, this species has it especially hard compared to other non-venomous species, but armed with the truth about their rodent-based diet, lack of venom, as well as their pattern and behavior meant to trick predators into thinking they are venomous, I hope that more people will be at ease sharing their yards, sheds, and barns with this charismatic and beneficial animal.