“Stand back!” scream the reddish brown blotches that ring the eastern milk snake, from its blunt snout to the tip of its tapered, vibrating tail. Such Batesian mimicry, in which a harmless creature looks like one that is dangerous, holds at bay potential predators, including foxes, raccoons, skunks, and coyotes. The scare tactic can also terrify humans who mistake the serpent for a venomous copperhead, coral snake, or Massasauga rattlesnake.
Unlike its poisonous cousins, with their triangle-shaped heads, the eastern milk snake makes a fine addition to garden ecology. And don’t be fooled by the folklore that yielded its common name—this slender serpent neither drinks milk nor extracts it from mammals of any sort. The only chore it performs in a dairy is dining on a rodent-rich diet. While secretive, the 2-to-4-foot-long creature is unafraid of humans and frequently burrows near the foundations of outbuildings where mice, rats, and voles thrive. The carnivore also constricts, suffocates, and swallows whole such prey as frogs, insects, earthworms, birds, and even other snakes.
The range of Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum spans the United States east of the Rockies, as well as southern Canada, Mexico, and Central America. In winter, the snakes congregate in hibernacula, where their collective mass provides the thermal moderation that individual physiology fails to supply. As the season warms, adults mate and then disperse. Before spring gives way to summer, females lay clutches of 6 to 20 eggs in warm, humid nests. Young hatch within 28 to 39 days, but by then their mothers have moved on.
To attract these solitary predators, provide ample nesting sites in the form of dry-stacked stone walls with southern exposures, preferably near a compost pile or hedge. When it’s time to mow or power up a string trimmer, first disturb high grasses with the gentle sweep of a stick to urge snakes back to safety in their burrows.
“Red on yellow will kill a fellow, but red on black is a friend of Jack.” —Folk saying
Photograph by Jack Thomas
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, June/July 2014