Milk Snake vs Copperhead?

Being able to distinguish venomous from non-venomous snakes is an important and life-saving skill to have in areas where both types of snake are present. The copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix) is a venomous snake found in North America that risks being confused with the similar-looking, nonvenomous milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum). You can use visual and behavioral cues to tell them apart.

Copperheads are most often found in the south and southwest in the United States but are also known to exist in the midwest and along the Atlantic coast. Milk snakes have a wider range than copperheads and can be found almost anywhere east of the Rocky mountains.

Copperheads are social snakes and are often found near one another when sunning, courting, mating, or denning.

How do you tell the difference between a copperhead and a milk snake?

Copperhead snakes are usually a pale-tan to pinkish-tan color that darkens towards the middle of the snake. Milk snakes are a noticeably brighter pinkish-red color. Look at the scale pattern. Copperhead snakes have 10 to 18 crossbands (stripes) that are pale-tan to pinkish-tan in color.

How do I identify a milk snake?

One sure way to identify a milksnake is by the “V”, “U” or “Y” shaped blotch that is found on the back of the head. The belly background color is white to beige with black square markings giving it the look of a checkerboard. Young are similar to adults, but with a more vivid coloration.

What snake can be mistaken for a copperhead?

Eastern Ratsnake (A.K.A. Blackrat Snake) The most common snake misidentified as a copperhead is the harmless juvenile Eastern Ratsnake (formerly called the blackrat snake). The Eastern Ratsnake starts life with a strong pattern of gray or brown blotches on a pale gray background.

How do you tell if a baby snake is a copperhead?

In order to identify baby copperheads, look out for bright yellow or green lines on their tails. Baby copperheads typically have this mark for the first year of their lives. Their coloring is typically light brown or reddish, and some younger snakes can look dark gray.

I answered as I always do: Nothing. Im not about to kill a snake simply because it has the audacity to breathe the same air we do. And then I launched into my standard defense of snakes lecture.

In fact, I place pieces of sheet metal and plywood lying strategically, but inconspicuously, on the edges of the yard as snake habitat. Garter snakes (seldom longer than 36 inches) can be recognized by three longitudinal stripes that run the length of the body.

Ringneck snakes (up to 20 inches) are charcoal gray with a gorgeous yellow or orange ring around its neck. A milk snakes white belly is marked with black squares that create a checkerboard effect. To avoid accidental encounters with snakes, watch where you place your hands and feet when exploring woods and fields, especially rocky areas.

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia.

Brightly colored and strikingly patterned, milk snakes are nonvenomous New World snakes with a wide range throughout North and South America. They are often confused with dangerous copperheads or coral snakes; however, milk snakes pose no threat to humans. In fact, they are popular pets easily bred in captivity.

The scarlet kingsnake was categorized as a subspecies of milk snake until 2006, when scientists determined that it was a separate species, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society . This tale has no bearing in reality and is scientifically impossible because snakes do not have lips and could not hold that much milk.

Milk snakes are sexually alike, meaning that males and females grow to the same length and have the same coloration and patterns. According to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory , one easy way to tell milk snakes from copperheads is by paying attention to the shape of their blotches. Milk snakes’ bands are rounded and thick, while copperheads’ splotches have a distinctive hourglass shape.

According to Western Connecticut State University , they can be found as far north as Ontario and Quebec and as far south as Venezuela. They most commonly like forested places but are also happy in fields, rocky outcroppings, agricultural areas and barns, according to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Milk snakes are carnivores that eat a wide variety of prey, including mammals and birds, said Heyborne.

Milk snakes often lay eggs in rotting logs, beneath rocks or buried in soil, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society. Kingdom : Animalia Subkingdom : Bilateria Infrakingdom : Deuterostomia Phylum : Chordata Subphylum : Vertebrata Infraphylum : Gnathostomata Superclass : Tetrapoda Class : Reptilia Order : Squamata Suborder : Serpentes Infraorder : Alethinophidia Family : Colubridae Genus : Lampropeltis Species : Lampropeltis triangulum It ranges from Maine to Minnesota and Iowa, and as far south as northern Georgia, according to the Ohio Public Library Information Network .

The Eastern milk snake is slender with reddish-brown blotchy bands rimmed in black on a tan or gray background. Eastern milk snakes are commonly confused with copperheads but their blotches are quite different shapes. (Image credit: Galina Savina Shutterstock)In the wild, Honduran milk snakes ( Lampropeltis triangulum hondurensis ) are bright reddish orange with black stripes.

Honduran milk snakes are popular pets and other color morphs have been bred in captivity, according to Western Connecticut State University. Honduran milk snakes are found in Honduras, the Southwestern United States, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, according to the Pittsburgh Zoo . They are called “Pueblan” because they are native to Puebla, Morelos and Oaxaca, Mexico, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

Harmless

Most snakes encountered in a backyard setting are harmless. Garter snakes (seldom longer than 36 inches) can be recognized by three longitudinal stripes that run the length of the body.Ringneck snakes (up to 20 inches) are charcoal gray with a gorgeous yellow or orange ring around its neck.Smooth green snakes (up to 22 inches) are bright lime green. They blends in perfectly with lush vegetation, so they often fall victim to lawn mowers. In death, green snakes quickly turn blue as unstable yellow pigments break down leaving only the more stable blue pigments behind.Black rat (up to seven feet long) and eastern milk snakes (up to four feet) are the most intimidating species that occur in backyards and the only ones whose bite might break the skin.Poisonous pit vipers such as copperheads and rattlesnakes, have triangular heads, vertical pupils and prominent heat sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils. They are not typically found in backyards.

Confusing

At a glance, milk snakes and copperheads can be confusing. The basic color of each is rusty brown, but the copperhead has a much richer copper tone.Furthermore, both species have dark bands that cross over the back and reach down the sides.The milk snake’s “saddles” are bordered in black and are widest across the back. The copperhead’s saddles, on the other hand, are most narrow on the back and wider on the sides. They have an hourglass shape.Lastly, a copperhead’s belly is unmarked and cream colored. A milk snake’s white belly is marked with black squares that create a checkerboard effect.Young rat snakes also have patterns that mimic copperheads, and each year countless rat and milk snakes are unfortunately killed in cases of mistaken identify.I admit some of the characteristics that distinguish copperheads cannot be seen from a distance. But if you’re close enough to hack a snake with a hoe, you’re close enough to detect a copperhead’s triangular head.I understand people’s desire to rid their backyards of poisonous copperheads, but I’m certain many of the “copperheads” killed each year are milk snakes and juvenile black rat snakes.

Benefits

Though the subject of snakes is distasteful to many, here are a few points to ponder as I beg for mercy on snakes’ behalf.• Most snakes, even poisonous ones, are beneficial. They eat insects, mice, rats, and other small rodents.• Snakes are normally shy and retiring. Their instinct is to slither away when disturbed, not attack. To avoid accidental encounters with snakes, watch where you place your hands and feet when exploring woods and fields, especially rocky areas.• Though copperheads are more common and widespread than rattlesnakes, their bite is much less dangerous. That’s because copperheads are smaller, they deliver less venom, and their venom is weaker than rattlesnake venom. I know of only one documented human death caused by a copperhead bite.• Finally, treat any poisonous snake bite (which can be identified by one, or usually two, puncture wounds) seriously. Keep the victim calm and quiet, and proceed to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.

Appearance

The appearance and coloration of milk snakes varies somewhat among the 24 subspecies, but all have banded coloration, said Heyborne. “These bands can vary in color from white to red to black, and alternating bands of differing colors are common,” he said. The lighter area separating the colorful bands can be white, yellow or orange. The darker bands are outlined in black. Many milk snakes have a light-colored Y or V shape on their necks.Milk snakes range from 14 to 69 inches (35.5 to 175 centimeters) long, according to ADW. The longest snakes are found in Central and South America. Milk snakes in the United States and Canada don’t grow beyond 51 inches (129 cm). Milk snakes have between 19 and 23 rows of scales, which are smooth. They have one anal plate. Milk snakes are sexually alike, meaning that males and females grow to the same length and have the same coloration and patterns.Like many nonvenomous snakes, milk snakes have round pupils, according to PA Herps.com.

Confusion with venomous snakes

Milk snakes are well known for their use of mimicry as a defensive strategy,” Heyborne said. They are often confused with copperheads and coral snakes because they all have bright, blotchy coloration. Nonvenomous milk snakes evolved to look like these venomous species in order to scare predators. “This type of mimicry, where a harmless species mimics a harmful species, is known as Batesian mimicry,” said Heyborne. It can be an effective defensive strategy, but has caused milk snakes other problems. Humans often kill harmless milk snakes, thinking they’re dangerous.According to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, one easy way to tell milk snakes from copperheads is by paying attention to the shape of their blotches. Milk snakes’ bands are rounded and thick, while copperheads’ splotches have a distinctive hourglass shape.Some milk snakes’ coloration is similar to the dangerous coral snake. “Many subspecies of milk snakes overlap the venomous coral snake in range,” Heyborne said. “Coral snakes also have alternating bands of color, but the patterning differs between the two snakes. Coral snakes have red and yellow bands next to one another, while the harmless milk snake has red and black bands next to each other.In areas of the world where both species exist, there are a variety of rhymes, which have been used to help people distinguish the two. For example, “Red on yellow kills a fellow. Red on black, friend of Jack.”Milk snakes sometimes try to trick predators into thinking they’re rattlesnakes by shaking their tails. Again, this can cause problems when humans think they’re looking at a dangerous rattler. But rattlesnakes and milk snakes don’t look much alike; rattlesnakes are duller colored and thicker than milk snakes.

Where milk snakes live

Milk snakes have a wider geographic range than most snakes and have the biggest range of any snake in North America. According to Western Connecticut State University, they can be found as far north as Ontario and Quebec and as far south as Venezuela. They live throughout Mexico and Central America. In the United States, they can be found almost everywhere but the West Coast.Given their broad range, milk snakes must be able to thrive in a variety of habitats. They most commonly like forested places but are also happy in fields, rocky outcroppings, agricultural areas and barns, according to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. They like to spend much of the day under rocks, boards or hidden in dark places of barns. Contrary to their namesake folktale, milk snakes do not frequent barns to “milk” the cows; instead, they seek out the rodents living there.

Behavior

Milk snakes are generally solitary and primarily nocturnal, being most active at night and dusk. When it is wet or cool outside, they sometimes venture out during the day, according to Montana Outdoors magazine. On hot days, milk snakes usually stay under rocks, logs or in burrows.Milk snakes spend the winter in a state of brumation in communal dens. Brumation is like hibernation but the animal wakes to drink water. The dens might be in burrows or in rock crevices. Sometimes other snakes, including rattlesnakes, stay there, too, according to ADW.

Hunting and diet

Milk snakes are carnivores that eat a wide variety of prey, including mammals and birds, said Heyborne. Common prey includes mice, rats, voles and other rodents found in agricultural areas, as well as lizards, snakes and snake eggs and bird eggs. Sometimes they even eat their lookalikes, the dangerous coral snakes.”Milk snakes are powerful constrictors,” said Heyborne. They wrap their bodies tightly around their prey until its heart stops from lack of blood flow. Once the prey is dead, the milk snake swallows it whole.

Reproduction and lifespan

Milk snakes mate from approximately March to May, depending on the subspecies. They breed when they wake from brumation, though according to the University of Michigan, they sometimes mate while still in their winter dens. If outside the den, the female leaves a pheromone trail behind her once she begins to ovulate. The males follow her trail.Milk snakes will sometimes copulate for hours, according to Western Connecticut State University. This may be to prevent other males from mating with an ovulating female.Milk snakes are oviparous, meaning that the mother lays eggs. She’ll lay between two and 17 eggs about 30 days after copulation. Milk snakes often lay eggs in rotting logs, beneath rocks or buried in soil, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society. A warm, humid place is important for proper incubation, which can last for one or two months. Once the eggs are laid, there is no further parental involvement.Hatchlings range from 6 to 7 inches and have bright coloration that dulls somewhat as they mature. Juveniles typically eat invertebrates before graduating to mammals and birds, said Heyborne.Milk snakes reach full maturity between 3 and 4 years of age. Their lifespan in the wild is unknown but in captivity they have lived as long as 22 years, according to ADW.

Endangerment status

Milk snakes are not federally protected or on the Red List (threatened list) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are locally protected in some states, however, such as Georgia and Montana where they are listed as a “species of concern.”