Learn powerful up to date methods from the experts that will stop Milk Snakes in their tracks and get rid of them for good.
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Milk snakes are a species of kingsnakes. Both of these snakes belong to the genus Lampropeltis, which is Greek for radiant small shield. This appropriate name is descriptive of these small snakes as they are known for the brightly colored glossy scales. There are 24 subspecies of milk snakes, each with slightly different color patterns and variations. The scarlet kingsnake used to be a 25th subspecies of milk snake, but it is now its own species. There are many overlapping characteristics between milk snakes and king snakes, therefore, I will discuss the kingsnake in this milk snake article where appropriate.
All species of milk snakes have a banded pattern, but the exact colors differ. The bands may be varying shades of white, black, red, yellow, or orange and will be arranged in different orders according to the species. Some milk snakes are more predominately red, while others are predominately white with hints of yellow and orange shades. In the United States, adult milk snakes grow to just over 4 feet in length. As they are non-venomous, milk snakes have round pupils, not vertical slits like most venomous snakes.
Milk snakes and scarlet kingsnakes are well known and discussed because they are often confused with the venomous snakes with whom they share regional distribution. Every child in the south is taught a form of the rhyme, “Red on yellow kill a fellow, red on black friend of Jack.” This, and other similar rhymes, are so important because kingsnakes and milk snakes look similar to the venomous coral snake. This defense mechanism is known as mimicry.
Mimicry is an effective survival tactic. Many harmless snakes use behavioral mimicry to try to convince would be predators that they are dangerous to approach. For example, harmless rat snakes will shake their tail as if they are a rattle snake and harmless water snakes will coil themselves and open their mouths wide as if they are a cottonmouth/water moccasin. However, the scarlet kingsnake looks so much like the very dangerous coral snake that it has nearly predator proofed itself. This disguise is quite effective against animal predators, but it often results in humans killing these harmless snakes because they are misidentified.
Milk snake is an unusual name for such a brightly colored family of snakes. These snakes were often seen in barns hanging around the milk cow. Farmers mistakenly believed the snakes were sucking milk from the cow. Of course, we now know that snakes do not drink milk, and this farmer’s tale is impossible. More likely, milk snakes were hanging out in the barn because that’s where the rats and mice congregate. Regardless, the name milk snake stuck, and we are now stuck explaining that milk snakes are both not dangerous and do not milk cows!
Milk Snake Habitat
There are 24 specific subspecies of milk snakes. These snakes are found throughout much of North America and Central America. Milk snakes are found down the eastern seaboard of the United States and into the Midwest then south through Mexico and into Ecuador. Because of the large geographic range, each subspecies of milk snake is specifically adapted for its area. Across this wide range, milk snakes can be found in forested areas, open woodlands, rocky slopes, prairies, farmlands, swampy, and semi-arid deserts. Milk snakes like to hide under rocks during the day. Some species of milk snakes migrate, heading to high and dry ground for winter hibernation and wetter habitats for the summer.
Milk Snake Behavior
Milk snakes are primarily nocturnal. Milk snakes are rarely seen slithering through the grass on a sunny day. They prefer to stay hidden under rocks or logs during the day and hunt at night. Milk snakes are a slow-moving, easy-going snake. Milk snakes are generally considered secretive and many species of milk snakes spend much of their time burrowed underground. Milk snakes prefer to be on the ground, but they can climb and swim, so they are sometimes located in trees or shrubs and near water.
In cool climates, milk snakes enter a period of brumation, a quasi-hibernation. They often gather together in dens to share warmth during the winter. As spring warms them, milk snakes perform their mating rituals. Female milk snakes are oviparous, meaning she lays eggs. Once she deposits her eggs, usually underneath rotting leaves or even underground, she has nothing further to do with them.
Milk snakes are non-venomous, easy to breed in captivity, and boast a variety of vivid shiny colors. Once accustomed to the idea, they tolerate being handled well. Milk snake owners say that they are gentle and easy to keep alive.
Do Milk Snakes Bite?
Milk snakes are usually encountered by people when they lift something in the yard, like a rock or fallen log. Both the snake and the person are usually surprised. Milk snakes will almost always try to get away. If they cannot get away, they may shake their tail in an attempt to imitate a rattlesnake, or strike at you. If cornered, threatened, or picked up unexpectedly, milk snakes will bite. Milk snakes have very small teeth and no venom to back up their attack. Often a milk snake bite will not even break human skin; if it does break the skin, it leaves nothing more than a scratch. If you are sure your bite was from a milk snake wash the area with soap and water and no further treatment should be necessary. However, if you are unsure if the snake that struck you was a milk snake or a coral snake seek precautionary medical attention. Doctors will likely observe your wound for signs of venom and act quickly should you have been bitten by a venomous serpent.
What Do Milk Snakes Eat?
Milk snakes are carnivorous constrictors. Since they do not have venom to stop their prey, they rely on their strong bodies to squeeze their prey which cuts off circulation to the brain. Milk snakes primarily eat rodents such as mice, rats, and voles. Milk snakes are opportunistic feeders and also eat birds and their eggs, lizards, frogs, minnows, and insects such as roaches. Milk snakes will even consume other snakes including pit vipers such as the copperhead. Milk snake blood serum has venom neutralizing properties which allows for the consumption of these venomous snakes. With all of these pests on its menu, milk snakes are more friend than foe. If you find a milk snake in your shed or under a log, we recommend you leave it alone. It is not only helping to control rodents on your property, it may just take out a venomous snake.
Identifying Common Subspecies of Milk Snakes
Of the 24 subspecies of milk snakes, 8 are found in the United States. Focusing on Georgia and Florida, we have 2 species of milk snakes that are of concern, the eastern milk snake, and the scarlet king snake. These 2 snakes are important to be able to identify as they are both commonly mistaken for venomous lookalikes. Although not native to our area, other subspecies have been found in our states that are believed to be related to the pet industry. For example, in 2021 a non-native Central American milk snake was found in Florida’s Everglades National Park. This was likely a released pet. As the python disaster in the Everglades teaches us, releasing unwanted pet snakes into the wild can cause ecological devastation. If you need to rehome your pet snake, please do so responsibly.
Eastern Milk Snake
The eastern milk snake, Lampropeltis triangulum is one of the most common milk snakes east of the Mississippi River. The eastern milk snake has a gray or tan background with 3 to 5 rows of reddish brown blotches. These blotches are outlined in black. At the rear of its head, there is usually a gray or tan Y or V shape. The underbelly is usually whitish in color with checkerboard pattern white and black pattern. The juvenile eastern milk snake is patterned similarly to the adult except it is more red in coloring. Adult eastern milk snakes are usually about 4 feet in length and pose no danger to humans.
The eastern milk snake spans from Ontario to the mountains of northern Georgia in the northwest tip of the state. The eastern milk snake is not known to make it as far south as Florida. As with other milk snake species, the eastern milk snake is considered docile and easy going. This snake poses no danger to you or your children or pets. The eastern milk snake prefers to hide under logs, stumps, rocks, and boards. This snake species also spends much of its time burrowed underground.
Milk Snake vs. Copperhead
The eastern milk snake is often confused with venomous copperhead snake; especially young eastern milk snakes as their coloring has a more reddish hue than the adults. Eastern milk snakes and copperheads can be distinguished in several ways. First, the eastern milk snakes’ splotches are rounded or square rather than the distinctive hourglass shape of the copperhead’s splotches. The copperhead has a wide boxy head shape with a well-defined neck, while the eastern milk snake has a blunt head which is only slightly wider than its neck. Adult copperhead snakes do not typically grow more than 3 feet in length, while an adult milk snake may grow to be 5 or 6 feet in length. The milk snake appears much more slender compared to a hefty looking copperhead. Furthermore, milk snakes are typically a much brighter more vibrant red than the more austere color shades of the copperhead. When these 2 snakes are compared side-by-side, the differences are obvious. However, in the real world we do not often have this advantage. The best course of action, if found outdoors, is to leave the snake alone. Most snake bites happen when humans attempt to handle or remove snakes.
Since the scarlet king snake was considered a milk snake until 2006, we will talk about it here in this milk snake article. The scarlet king snake is common through both Georgia and Florida. The scarlet kingsnake, Lampropeltis elapsoides, is considerably shorter than most adult milk snakes. An adult scarlet king snake only grows to be about 20 inches, not coincidentally about the same size as a coral snake. The scarlet king snake is a thin snake with bands of black, red, and yellow bands. These bands encircle the entire body. On a harmless scarlet king snake, the red and yellow bands do NOT touch. The scarlet kingsnake’s head is small and seems indistinguishable from the rest of the snake’s body. The juvenile scarlet kingsnake appears very similar but the yellow band may be closer to white in color.
Scarlet kingsnakes are secretive and private. They are more common than we realize because they are so often concealed. They are most often found hiding underneath logs, branches, rocks, or other debris and seem to be primarily nocturnal. They are adept climbers and are sometimes found in trees as well. Because of their smaller size, they do not often capture large mammals like rats like the larger milk snakes do. Rather, scarlet kingsnakes most often eat lizards, frogs, and small snakes. As they are non-venomous, scarlet kingsnakes kill their prey by coiling their body around their prey and squeezing tight.
Scarlet Kingsnake vs Venomous Coral Snake
In areas like Georgia and Florida where both scarlet kingsnakes and coral snakes live, differentiating between them is of utmost importance.
If threatened, surprised, or annoyed, scarlet kingsnakes can bite. Prior to biting, they will often release a foul odor and vibrate their tail. A scarlet kingsnake bite should be washed with soap and water but rarely requires any further treatment. If you are unsure whether you were struck by a scarlet kingsnake or a coral snake, seek medical treatment. Coral snake venom is extremely potent, but interestingly enough, pain, swelling, and other symptoms may be delayed as many as 12 hours after the bite. Because of this possible delay in symptoms, and the possible confusion of the snake species, remain vigilant even if you think you were bitten by a scarlet kingsnake.
Differentiating between the venomous coral snake and the scarlet kingsnake is a mandatory survival skill for those who live in areas where both of these snakes are found. Most every child in Georgia and Florida is taught some version of the rhyme, “Red on yellow kill a fellow, red on black venom lack (or friend of Jack.)” This rhyme can safely be used in the continental United States, but it is not true worldwide. If you go exploring in Africa, Asia, or South America you may encounter venomous snakes where the red band touches the black band. Coral snakes and scarlet kingsnakes are both small slender snakes, have reclusive habits, and the same colors of bands. The distinction is the order in which the bands appear on their bodies. On the harmless scarlet kingsnake, the red and black bands touch; on the venomous coral snake, the red and yellow bands touch. Make sure you repeat the rhyme to your loved ones so that it is easily accessible to their brains in a moment of panic. I have a specific childhood memory of riding my bike and being terrified by a snake I encountered. As I clumsily tried to apply the rhyme to the snake in my path, I fell from my bike and landed in a heap near the snake. As it turns out, the snake was a harmless scarlet kingsnake, but the incident terrified me such that it has remained with me to this day.
Milk Snake In Your House and Yard
If you spot what you believe to be a milk snake or a scarlet kingsnake in your yard, we recommend that you live and let live. Many species of milk snakes eat rodents and other pests around our homes. Since milk snakes are not dangerous to humans or pets, it makes the most sense to utilize them for free and organic rodent control. Milk snakes are not an aggressive species and are often only found when their hiding place is disturbed.
However, if a milk snake is found indoors, it must be evicted. Milk snakes may come indoors through a cracked door or window, or even small openings drilled for utilities or vents ect. Cooler weather may draw snakes into a basement or a rat or mouse infestation in your home may serve as just the invitation they are looking for. Homes or businesses with extreme rodent infestations and plenty of hiding places, may unwittingly be housing snakes as well. Like all living creatures, milk snakes will be drawn to areas rich in food and shelter. If you have a known rat or mouse issue within your home, attic, basement, or building, take care of it! The pest professionals at Nextgen Pest Solutions can get rid of your rats and mice and seal your home so they cannot enter again. Many people prefer to deal with a rodent issue early, rather than an entire indoor ecosystem complete with snakes and other critters.
Since milk snakes are non-venomous, they can be picked up and removed from the house. Before reaching down and grabbing any snake, you should be 100% sure of the identification. Remember, many milk snakes mimic venomous serpents in visual appearance. If you are comfortable with a do-it yourself snake removal approach, there are options for safe and efficient snake removal. The most effective strategies involve covering the snake with a bucket or pail then slipping a firm piece of cardboard underneath the bucket. This essentially captures the snake without risking it slithering off into a clothes or toy pile and if all goes well is a touch-free transaction. You then turn the bucket right side up and release the snake outside to continue feasting on the rodents in your yard. Let me repeat, unless you are 100% positive on the snake identification, do not attempt to remove a snake from your house yourself. Snakes are most likely to strike out when people man-handle them.
If snake removal is not within your comfort zone, no fear. Whether a non-venomous scarlet kingsnake or milk snake, or a venomous coral snake or rattlesnake, call Nextgen Pest Solutions for all your snake removal needs. Our professional snake removal experts will hurry to your home and quickly and efficiently solve your indoor snake problem. Removing snakes is not for everyone; fortunately, our professional wildlife removal experts are well trained and equipped to get rid of snakes quickly and safely. Reducing and eliminating rodents in your yard will naturally reduce snakes slinking about your yard. If snakes are a perpetual annoyance in your yard, consider implementing Nextgen Pest Solutions’ rodent prevention program. By reducing rats and mice, even harmless snakes will scout for richer hunting grounds.