When most people think of a snake, they probably think of a satiny brown, green, or black reptile slithering stealthily through the undergrowth. But as it turns out not all snakes are content with drab camouflage.
Some snakes want to draw attention to themselves, usually as a warning to any larger animals to keep well away from them and they do this by bright and conspicuous coloration.
But a few tricky snakes are brightly colored and lack the venomous bite that most brightly colored snakes have. Basically it is a bluff!
How about milk snakes? They are brightly colored. Are milk snakes poisonous, and are they dangerous to people?
No, milk snakes are non-venomous and are not considered to be dangerous. A bite from a milk snake may still inflict injury, however, and milk snakes are routinely confused for the far more dangerous coral snake.
Milk snakes are definitely an attention-getting subspecies of the kingsnakes, and you are unlikely to miss them.
However, it is easy for the uninitiated to confuse the nearly harmless milk snake with a significantly more dangerous and venomous coral snake.
You’ll want to avoid that at all costs, particularly if you are trying to catch or dispatch a milk snake that is causing problems.
I’ll tell you a lot more about milk snakes and they’re dangerous look-alikes below.
What Does the Milk Snake Look Like?
Milk snakes have highly distinctive scale coloration, but they also vary greatly in size. Adults top out at around 5 ½ feet long or perhaps even more, but they might be as short as 12 inches.
Milk snakes are another stoutly built snake, but somewhat more slender than black rat snakes and similar constrictors.
And of course, the most obvious and eye-catching physical characteristic of the milk snake is the bold color and pattern of its scales.
Milk snakes are usually a brick-red color that is overlaid with yellow stripes bounded by much thinner bands of black.
This pattern is unmistakable once you know what to look for, and it will definitely get your attention, but it is also quite similar to the bold, vivid colors of the dangerous, venomous coral snake which might lead to disaster if you identify it incorrectly.
Don’t Trust Catchy Rhymes to Keep You Safe
When it comes to venomous snakes, and coral snakes in particular, folklore has developed many rhymes or mnemonics that are supposed to help people remember how to distinguish a dangerous and venomous snake from one that is harmless.
Although well-intended, these rhymes are not infallible and could lead to disaster.
Let me give you an example: looking at the common coral snake, which is highly venomous, they usually display a roughly symmetrical pattern of alternating red and black bands along the length of their body.
These red and black bands are divided by thin yellow stripes, meaning that the red and black ostensibly will never touch.
Compare this with the milk snake, which is primarily red all over with yellow bands bordered by thin black stripes.
You’ve probably heard the resulting jingle before: “Red to yellow, kill a fellow; red to black, friend of Jack.” There are many variations besides, but you get the idea.
If a snake that looks like a coral snake has red parts touching yellow parts on its body, then it is indeed a venomous coral snake. Simple, right?
Not so fast! As it turns out, there are quite a few subspecies and variations of the typical coral snake pattern that completely turn the rhyme on its head and put that wisdom to the lie.
They definitely don’t look like the typical coral snake…To further complicate matters, many milk snakes don’t have that bright, bold coloring at all!
So what are you supposed to do if you encounter an unknown snake that looks like a milk snake or looks sort of like a coral snake? Remember the advice your parents gave you that I’m also going to give you now: if you see a snake, stay away from it!
Where Are Milk Snakes Found?
Milk snakes are found all throughout the American Deep South, Eastern Seaboard, New England, and all the way up into the Great lakes region and the southern fringes of Canada.
If you are east of the Mississippi River, you’ll find milk snakes.
And I do mean you’ll find them everywhere: milk snakes are adaptable to various weather conditions, terrain types and other conditions and so there is no telling where they will turn up.
However, if there is one thing that is going to guarantee a population of milk snakes it is a population of rodents, their preferred prey, and that is why they are so commonly encountered in forests, fields, and near farms.
Are Milk Snakes Venomous?
No, milk snakes are not venomous, and are not considered to be truly dangerous to people, although you are likely to be injured if they bite you.
Can the Milk Snake Kill Pets or Domestic Animals?
Milk snakes are not a threat to people or larger animals, but they can definitely threaten poultry, bird eggs, rabbits and any other small mammals including small cats and dogs.
Because of milk snakes don’t rely on venom to bring down prey, they must instead rely on strength, and they typically overpower their prey before crushing it and then swallowing it whole.
Milk snakes are proficient hunters and are liable to turn up anywhere that they can fit, and they can climb trees.
That means they can climb buildings to break into chicken coops and other structures.
If you have any of these smaller animals, you must keep an eye on them if milk snakes are in the area and consider dealing with any snakes that are on your property.
Will Milk Snakes Attack Humans?
Generally not. Milk snakes are not particularly aggressive and will do everything they can to run from, or rather slither away from, people or else take cover when people or large animals approach.
Most snakes, including milk snakes, greatly fear being stepped on!
However, a milk snake that is cornered or one that you are trying to handle is highly likely to bite you.
Like I said above, these snakes are strong and they depend on their strength both when hunting and for self-defense if they cannot avoid trouble.
Will a Milk Snake Bite Hurt You?
Yes, very likely. Even though they don’t have deadly venom to inject you with that could cost you a limb or kill you, the multiple rows of hooked, sharp teeth in the mouth of a milk snake will cut you wide open.
This is going to leave a pretty ugly wound, even without the venom, and this wound is also highly likely to become infected in the aftermath if not treated promptly.
Don’t risk a bite from a milk snake, or if you must wear some sort of heavy gloves with gauntlets and other clothing that can protect you from their teeth: despite their sharpness, their teeth are very small.
Is It Best to Kill Milk Snakes When You Can?
Even though milk snakes are fairly notorious for hanging around farms and homesteads inside their range, you should try to avoid killing one if you can do so safely.
Milk snakes are an important part of the ecosystems that they inhabit, but on the other hand, there are also definite predators of bird eggs, chicks and other small animals so they can be problematic.
If at all possible, try to capture and relocate the snake a good distance away from your property because it likely won’t be back.
If you can’t, and if animal control services are unable to assist you, you should kill the snakes to protect your animals.