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Eastern Milksnakes

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Posted by Glenn on March 19, 2001 at 19:33:42:

Eastern Milk Snakes
Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum
The Demons of the Dairies

Glenn R. Bartley
All Rights Reserved
August 30, 2000

Nowadays, the term ‘Milk Snakes’ usually brings to mind tri-colored snakes who display spectacularly beautiful bands or saddles of red/black/white or red/black/orange and so on. You know the deal. They are all over the place at the herp shows, pet shops and on the web. They are nice to keep too, and I have had one or two over the years; but they are not what comes to my mind first. When someone says Milk Snake to me my mind immediately goes back to my youthful days at summer camp when ‘Nature Study’ was my favorite subject and when I first learned about that milk sucking creature - the demon of the dairy – the Eastern Milk Snake! You know him don’t you? The Eastern Milk Snake doesn’t have all of those bright colors like his cousins. No sir, he has got earthen brown, black bordered saddles with some shades of lighter brown and tan with a good bit of gray thrown in for good measure. He is Mr. Stealth of the Milk Snake clan! This camouflage helps him to blend in with the somber and often smelly background of the dairy barn floor as he creeps along in search of a nice fat udder to grasp hold of in his quest for a cool refreshing drink of milk. With all the milk they must sop up they certainly can be called the demons of the dairies. For the life of me I can’t figure out why those “Got Milk” advertisements don’t show a smiling Milk Snake with a white mustache.

Well, when someone says Milk Snake, I really do picture something like that anyhow! I know that they really don’t drink milk straight from the source (could you imagine the cow standing still for all those tiny teeth). And I don’t think they do from a saucer either. Those things, I am pretty sure, are nothing more than old wives’ tales - or are they. Some claim that this milk sucking fantasy had its beginnings when Milk Snakes were observed drinking milk from saucers that had been left out for the farmer’s kitty cats. Think about that for a moment – then think where else they were seen on the farm. In the dairy fields and in the dairy barn, of course, no doubt searching for a nice dinner of few fat mice. Seen slithering around the dairy fields and the stalls of the dairy cows, by the same amazed person who maybe actually had once seen a thirsty snake take a sip of milk from a saucer ( Schmidt & Davis, 1941) and there it is: the makings of a legendary demonic myth; and there too in a less sinister light are the origins of the name of this snake. In reality they do have a more camouflaged appearance than their more brightly colored relatives, and they do hang out around dairy barns and usually anywhere on a farm where grain is found (except maybe the chicken coup, have you ever seen what an angry or hungry chicken does to a snake). No, of course the Milk Snakes don’t eat the grain, but mice do, and Milk Snakes sure do love to eat mice. They are a farmer’s friend - that is for sure! For years I have sought out these small creatures, who usually average about no more than 3 ˝ to 4 feet long in my neck of the woods (or should I say my uncle’s neck of the woods as he owns the farm where I usually find them). One of the places I have often found them is – you guessed it – in or around barns. Other places have been on roads at night or early evening, in plain sight in fields (usually near bodies of water), in the woods on low mountains, in pine barrens, in dumps, and under flat stones. I even found one once, and I stress ONCE, under a rotting log. I point this last thing out and stress it because one or two of my herp books say they are commonly found under rotting logs and trash ( Behler & King, 1979 and Schmidt & Davis 1941). Maybe they are found under rotting logs and under trash, but not in my experience. I have most often found them under flat stones, when the stones have been warm or hot to the touch. As for the snakes under rocks: they like the heat of the sun, but like most snakes they don’t like sitting out in the open to absorb it. Instead they crawl under a flat rock that is exposed to the sun. The rock then evenly distributes the warmth to the snake below. (In nature snakes usually thermoregulate with heat from above, not below like in captivity. This might be a good point for heat lamps as opposed to heat pads for your captive snakes, but I am no expert on that matter.) The second most likely place for me to find them has been around farm buildings, probably when they were out looking for dinner or maybe on the prowl to get the milk mustache that seems so popular today. In some areas of their range, in my home state NY, they are plentiful. In others they seem to be absent. This is apparently normal among the distribution of many animals. What I mean is, you may have a map, such as one found in The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians (1992, pp. 623), that shows them all over your state. The problems seems to be that when you look for them, in what should be prime habitat, they are simply not to be found. This does not mean the books or the maps are wrong; it just means: ‘ Oh well, just go out and look somewhere else within that range’. The maps in field guides give a general idea of where a species can be found, they simply are not always found everywhere within their home range. In fact I have found them to be subject to population swings in certain areas. Some years, for a few years in a row, I have found absolutely none where before they had been plentiful. Then suddenly they are back on the scene in good numbers, only to virtually disappear again within a few years. I imagine this may have to do with some natural cycle such as rodent population size: few or no mice = few or no snakes. Or maybe it has to do with predator pressure, lots of hungry raccoons, skunks, and hawks = few if any Milk Snakes. I am no wildlife biologist but that would be my guess, after all I too watch the nature shows. As for their distribution, the Eastern Milk Snake is found from Maine, south to Georgia and as far west as about Illinois as per the Audubon Field Guide (give credit where credit is due). In my herp ventures, I have seen these guys in the wild in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut (once again giving credit where it is due especially when it is due to me).

These fellers love to eat a variety of prey including: rodents and other small mammals, birds, slugs and other reptiles like snakes. According to Schmidt & Davis, an analytical review of the stomach contents of 42 milk snakes from Pennsylvania revealed that their chief food was field mice followed by, in order of incidence, other small mammals, birds and slugs ( 1941). Captive bred Eastern Milk Snakes can usually be readily adjusted to a diet of Mus musculus (the common house mouse, the albino variety is sold in pet shops and at herp shows for snake food). As long as the mice are healthy and fed a well rounded diet (for mice) they will supply all of necessary nutrients for captive milk snakes, although an occasional sprinkling of the mouse with a multi vitamin is ok. Wild caught Eastern Milk Snakes, on the other hand can be a problem and can be so in more ways than one. First off, when you catch them they are nasty! They don’t just bite, but chew once they have grabbed hold of you. I can not imagine that they could ever grab hold of an udder without the cow trampling them to a pulp. Or maybe this should have been first: check local laws and regulations to make sure you can catch them before you try. If legal, and you get lucky, and catch a nice one - congratulations. Now good luck trying to get it to feed. You see some wild snakes, especially older Eastern Milk Snakes, become accustomed to eating a certain variety of foods, and once so accustomed they don’t like to change their diets. Sounds sort of like lots of people that I know – you know – after years of someone eating chicken legs just try to get that same someone to eat frogs legs! The food that the wild snakes get used to eating consists of various small mammals such as: field mice, voles, moles, nestling birds, a slimy slug or two and so on. Some books even say they eat lizards ( The Audubon Society Field Guide, 1992). I do not doubt that they might eat snakes, but I have never witnessed this among captive specimens nor have I seen it in the wild and I have examined stomach contents of quite a few specimens (alive and squirming at the time, minus the meal with no harm done). In fact, I have often found Eastern Milk Snakes in conjunction with Eastern Garter Snakes, Red Bellied Snakes, Ring Neck Snakes and Smooth Green Snakes; and all seemed to be less than interested in each other. They were brought together by a suitable flat rock under which to thermoregulate; it looked kind of like a meeting of the serpentine Friar’s Club. Then again who knows what evil lurks in the mind of a Milk Snake - could be that once the Milk Snake warmed up enough there would be one less snake under the rock with a fatter and happier Milk Snake! As opposed to older snakes, the young wild caught ones are sometimes easily switched from a natural diet to one consisting of common house mice (use only commercially purchased mice, wild ones can carry disease). Note that when I say young ones, I mean a snake that is less than a year old. You see, in nature these guys, as in captivity, have to feed on small prey such as pinky mice. At that age and size the mice have less scent (but do have some) to them, so it becomes a sometimes easy task to switch a snake from a diet of field mice to house mice. If you have a wild caught Eastern Milk Snake and it is not feeding, I recommend releasing it in the area from which it was taken, but only after checking out local laws as it maybe illegal to release an animal into the wild in your state. In any event if you have the snake for more than a month in summer and it does not feed, you likely have a problem feeder. There are ways to keep problem feeders fed, but you should seek expert advice from a vet about that. Remember that Eastern Milks not feeding in winter maybe due to the fact that the snake wants to brumate (sort of like hibernation). This is another problem with older wild caught snakes, they are in the habit of taking it easy for the winter. So if it hasn’t gotten used to eating house mice by the end of the summer or mid fall, you are going to have a very skinny and hungry snake by the spring (if it survives at all). Just because it has been hungry over the whole winter does not mean it will be easy to switch it to house mice in the spring. It just does not work that way, ask anyone who has had problems with wild caught Ball Pythons. If you want to keep one or more of these guys then the way to go, and I strongly recommend this, is CAPTIVE BRED. By the way wild caught snakes, especially adults, often are infested with parasites and can harbor diseases. They usually don’t acclimate all that well to captivity without a lot of hard work and even after lots of labor some never adapt.

CAPTIVE BRED Eastern Milk Snakes and very young wild caught (although both sometimes hard to find) are easy to keep and can be kept following guidelines for many other types of North American colubrids. Bear in mind that these guys are often from cool areas and they don’t need very high heat in their enclosures although they should be allowed to thermoregulate using a heat pad or heat lamp. (By the way if you are new to this herp terminology, thermoregulation is how a reptile regulates its body temperature. When it needs to warm up, such as for digestion, it moves to a warm spot. When it gets too warm or has had enough it moves to a cooler area.) I would suggest an ambient temperature between 75 – 84 degrees Fahrenheit with a warm/hot spot at one end of the cage up to about 92 degrees during the day. At night an ambient temperature drop into the mid to low seventies is ok, as long as the heat pad still provides a warm/hot spot. The tank should be big enough to allow the snake to move from a cooler to warmer area as it wishes. Enclosure size for an average adult would be a ten gallon fish tank sized cage. A 15 – 20 gallon sized enclosure would be better. Water should always be available in a clean water bowl. At least two hides should be provided (a hide box or something similar). One should be placed on the warm end and another at the far end of the enclosure. These guys are pretty shy in nature, although captive bred Eastern Milk Snakes do acclimate to a fair amount of handling. Substrate can consist of a number of things from newspaper (black & white print only as the color ink can have harmful chemicals) to white paper towels to pine shavings to astro-turf like terrarium mats. I use the pine shavings, always being careful to make sure the snake does not swallow any when feeding. Try to feed snakes out of the enclosure so they will not swallow any of these wood shavings with their meals. Although snakes have powerful digestive juices they were not made to digest wood, and swallowing enough of this stuff can lead to an impaction in their digestive tract. This is something a vet would have to treat, and vets are expensive. Make sure to clean the substrate whenever the snake dirties it. Discard all of it, clean out the tank and replace the soiled substrate with fresh. This usually only has to be done about once a week for an adult if kept on a weekly feeding schedule. As for feeding, a diet of commercially available house mice is fine. I buy frozen, it saves money and cuts down on the stink of a live mouse colony. Make sure that when you use frozen mice they are completely thawed out before feeding them to you snake; remember that bit about thermoregulation - well you won’t find a snake thermoregulating in the frozen food section. Seriously, I believe that if a snake were to consume a frozen mouse it might damage the snake’s digestive tract. As to an amount to feed, a neonate (baby) should be fed about two – three times per week, one pinky at each feeding. The mice get bigger as the snake grows and feedings can be reduced to weekly or every tens days for an adult. I think weekly is best if the snake is willing. You can also feed live mice or freshly killed mice to the snakes. Rat pups of suitable size might also be an alternative. Be careful not to leave a live mouse unattended in a snake enclosure as the mouse can sometimes turn the tide and kill or seriously injure a snake. When feeding live prey you will get a chance to see that your milk snake is a constrictor. That is it grabs its prey in its mouth, holding on with many sharp small backwards curved teeth, and then it quickly wraps coils of its body around the prey animal. As it does so, if you watch closely you will see that each time the mouse tries to breath, the snake wraps tighter thereby cutting off any air the mouse could get. This suffocates the prey in a fairly short amount of time. It is not a pretty sight to watch for those with weak stomachs, neither is it cruel or abhorrent, it is part of the nature of the beast and nothing more.

I have not bred any of these guys yet. They are a bit hard to find on the market, so if you want one you may have to go the wild caught route (make sure it is legal). If you go the wild route, try to stick to young ones as I pointed out earlier, the older ones usually have problems when wild caught. If you want to breed them you will most likely have to brumate them for part of the fall, winter, and spring months. This allows males to develop a high enough sperm count (personal communication at the Long Island Herpetological Society). Brumation sort of gets them into the mood. During brumation the snakes should remain in the enclosure with no heat pad or lamp. The enclosure should be in a place that has an ambient temperature in the mid fifties down to the mid forties with natural lighting (but away from heat that can build up by a window – even in the winter). Clean drinking water must always be available, the snakes are not in the sleep of hibernation but just in a less active state while brumating. Before allowing a snake to brumate you should give it a good two weeks from the time of its last feeding so it can empty out the digestive tract completely. Yeah, that’s right, it has to make a few good poops to empty everything out before it can brumate. This helps avoid problems caused by partially digested food in the gut of a snake who would now be to cool to digest it while brumating. Imagine lazing around in a state of virtual inactivity for a few months with a partially digested hot dog rotting in your gut. Not a pretty picture, so just try to think of what it would be like for a snake with a half digested mouse in its gut - YUCK. Problems caused by undigested food remaining in the digestive tract during brumation can cause infections that ultimately lead to high vet bills or the death of the snake. When it is time to bring the snake out of brumation in the spring (lets say mid March) you put the heat and lights back on in the enclosure for about a week before offering the first meal. The snake should be pretty hungry by then, although if an adult male it may not feed right away as he might be in a breeding mode. Some males will simply not eat until late spring or early summer, I am guessing it is a hormonal thing. Young snakes can be kept from brumation for the first year as long as they continue to feed. If they go off their feeding routine in the winter they may be hinting it is time to brumate. I allow mine to brumate in my basement where wintertime temps are anywhere between about 55 – 65 degrees. Higher than 65 is probably asking for trouble, and temps around 55 are much better.

Right now I have one that is about a year or two old. It is wild caught so I can not say with certainty when it was born. My guess is that it was born late last summer or at the end of the previous summer. It was pretty small when caught but has grown at a good rate on a diet of thawed out pinkies. I also have a second Eastern Milk Snake that my ten year old son caught this year. This one was most likely born this summer, it looks to be the right size, but it could have been born late last year (for a snake that would mean by early or mid fall in area where it was caught). It took its first meal of two thawed pinkies within a couple of days of being brought home. We keep it with the other larger guy, and we are hoping that they are not cannibalistic. My son was pretty proud of the fact that he caught this one on his own. We have been out looking for snakes many times together and don’t see the Eastern Milk Snakes anywhere as often as we see other snakes. He caught it on my uncle’s farm and was pretty happy about it because he was out alone on an adventure all of his own - a pretty good catch if you ask me. Aptly so, the farm where he found this guy is named Happy Times Farm and what could make a ten year old boy happier. Both Brendan and I are hopeful we have a male and female and that we can start a breeding project in 2 – 3 years time (I guess that would make him happier). I’ll let you know how it works out.

In closing, I should point out that over the past two or three years the milk snake population, on the farm where these guys were caught, has been on a rapid upswing and they seem to be very numerous; however, over the prior few years they were in apparent low population stasis or slow decline. It was always catch and release during those tough times; and even though things are better - it is still usually catch and release now. That these two snakes were taken home is the exception. We always remember that if we take too many there will be none to enjoy tomorrow and that truly would be sad. On a happier note we also know: these guys are great to keep, love dairy barns and other farm buildings, probably don’t milk cows, are the friends of farmers because they love to eat mice, and only have to be referred to as demons of the dairies by the mice and other critters they consume.

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