Signs of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations can be found all around in March. Shamrocks (or three-leaf clovers), leprechauns and pots of gold are on display. Many legends surround St. Patrick. One is that he forced all the snakes out of Ireland, although fossil records show there weren’t ever snakes living there in the first place!
Lucky for us in Illinois, there are no such legends about snakes being removed from our state. In fact, we love our snakes so much that in 2022 new legislation was passed making the eastern milk snake the official state snake of Illinois! Milk snakes now join the list of state symbols that includes such celebrity species as cardinals (the state bird), monarchs (the state insect), white-tailed deer (the state animal) and more. Congratulations, eastern milk snakes!
With more than a dozen species of snakes living in the Will County forest preserves, how can I tell if a snake I found is a milk snake?
Words to know
Constrictor: A snake that kills its prey by coiling around it to squeeze it.
Nocturnal: Active or occurring at night.
Solitary: Done or existing alone.
Venomous: Capable or secreting or injecting venom through a bite or sting.
Eastern milk snakes are about 2 feet to 3½ feet long when fully grown. They have gray and white backs, but are mostly covered with brown blotches, like splatters of paint. Those blotches are larger on their backs and smaller on their sides. All the blotches look like they were outlined with a thick black marker. One mark at the back of the head, where you would think a neck would start, looks like the letter Y or V pointing toward the tail.
Their bellies have a fun pattern too. It looks like a black and white checkerboard, but you’re not going to get the snake to lay on its back long enough to play a game!
Baby milk snakes are smaller and brighter. They are 5 inches to 11 inches long when they hatch. Their blotches are a brighter reddish color. So even though they are smaller, they might be easier to spot.
Where can I find them?
Eastern milk snakes are solitary during their active months, from April to November. That means they like to live alone. They will live in fields, woodlands, rocky hillsides or river bottoms. The important things when choosing a home are a place to hide and food to eat. They like to stay out of sight under rocks, leaf litter, logs and boards.
Also, eastern milk snakes are nocturnal, so they usually sleep during the day and are active at night. You’ll have a better chance of seeing them on the move if you are out in the evening too.
Should I be afraid of milk snakes?
Nope! Eastern milk snakes are not venomous. In fact, none of the snake species living in our preserves are venomous!
Plus you look like a big predator, and eastern milk snakes are not looking for a fight. They are pretty calm snakes that do not like confrontation. They will try to get away from any threat. If they feel like they are in danger and can’t get away, they will first give a warning by quickly shaking their tail. They don’t have rattles, but they mimic the sound by pushing around dried leaves while they shake.
If tail shaking doesn’t work, they will hiss. Striking, or lunging to bite, is an absolute last resort to try to scare the threat away. Their tiny teeth would cause little, if any, harm to a human. If you respect the warning signs and leave the snake alone, a bite should not happen.
Besides, eastern milk snakes won’t bite you because you don’t look like food. You are just too big. Snakes can only eat things that are as wide as the thickest part of their bodies. In other words, things that are much smaller than any human.
What do milk snakes eat?
Well, we already know they don’t eat humans. Another clue is that they can only eat things that are as thick as they are. How thick are they? Not very. Touch your pointer finger and thumb together to make the “okay” sign. Milk snakes are about as thick as that O, or maybe a little thicker. So what is about that size and tasty to a snake? Small rodents like mice; amphibians like frogs; and fish. (Yes, they can swim!) They eat birds and eggs too. (Yes, they can climb too!) Even other snakes are not safe from a hungry eastern milk snake!
Eastern milk snakes are constrictors. They squeeze their prey to kill it before eating it.
Fun fact: Even though eastern milk snakes are not venomous, they can (and will!) eat venomous snakes. Not around here, of course, because there aren’t venomous snakes. But eastern milk snakes live in many other places.
Baby milk snakes are even thinner, about the width of your finger. They eat smaller prey like insects, slugs and worms.
Do they drink milk?
They sure don’t! Names can be deceiving. In the case of eastern milk snakes, their name is based on a misunderstanding. It’s not uncommon for farmers to find milk snakes in their barns. As the story goes, a long time ago, farmers thought they were drinking the cows’ milk straight from their udders. Farmers would blame low milk production on the snakes, saying they were drinking too much.
But the truth is they don’t even have the right mouth parts to suck! So why were milk snakes living in barns if not for the cows’ milk? Think about the climate inside of a barn. Cool and dark with lots of hiding places. Just what milk snakes prefer in a home.
That’s not all, though. Think about what else likes to live in barns that snakes do eat. Lots of rodents. Shelter and food? Perfect.
You may not have a barn at home to look for snakes, but they are all around. Hike at your closest preserve or visit a park with your eyes to the ground. Want a guaranteed close-up look at a snake? Visit Plum Creek Nature Center or Hidden Oaks Nature Center to meet the resident snakes and other animal ambassadors. They live inside receiving care from the staff and are a part of different programs. Come on out to meet them!
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