Wild Profile: Meet the milk snake

Published: July 28, 2020

A milk snake coiled against a leaf background By Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

The milk snake is as maligned as any other snake, but there’s of course no good reason for this. As with almost all of Canada’s native snakes, this one is harmless. Early farmers sure didn’t like them: since they often found these snakes in cattle barns, they believed the serpents were siphoning the cow’s milk from their udders. (Hence the name “milk” snake.) This wasn’t true—obviously. It’s likely the snakes were attracted to the mice in the barns, and were probably pretty useful at keeping the rodent population down. You’re welcome, farmers.

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Today, nobody blames the reptiles for stealing milk, but, since folks easily confuse milk snakes with venomous varieties (the Massasauga rattler), they’ve been the target of human persecution. It doesn’t help that milk snakes will mimic rattling behaviour when threatened. They’ll vibrate their tails in dry leaves or against other objects, hoping to fool a potential predator.

Milk snakes are cagey, and mostly try to stay hidden under rocks, logs, and leaf litter. This puts them in a good position to ambush mice and vole prey, though, particularly in the summer, they’ll actively hunt, and raid their quarries’ nests. Milk snakes will also swallow birds, salamanders, frogs, or other small snakes. They’re constrictors: like most snakes that lack venom, they subdue prey by coiling their body around the victim. The pressure stops blood flow to the animal’s vital organs and they fall unconscious.

Even though they prefer to keep to themselves, milk snakes will sometimes turn up around—or even inside—cottage buildings. Freaky, maybe, but keep in mind that when it comes to cottage invaders, snakes are the least-pesty pests around. They won’t chew your wiring, eat your food, spread disease, make a mess, or do much of anything except keep the rodents at bay. As cottage guests, they’re actually pretty awesome.

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