In nature, bright colors and distinctive patterns usually signal one thing: danger. Generally, it is an animal’s way of warning potential predators that they had better keep their distance unless they want to pay the price.
With few exceptions, these bright colors indicate that an animal is highly poisonous. But, there’s a phenomenon known as Batesian mimicry, where a harmless animal avoids danger by imitating the colors or patterns of a more dangerous relative.
Because of this, you need to know how to tell apart non-venomous snakes from venomous ones. Milk snakes are one snake that is known for a striking yellow black and red pattern, but are they dangerous? Are milk snakes poisonous?
No, milk snakes are not poisonous, and are almost harmless to humans. Larger specimens might still deliver a nasty bite, however.
Milk snakes are fairly common throughout the range, and if you run into one it can be cause for serious alarm unless you know how to positively identify them.
We will teach you what you need to know about these striking but good-natured snakes in the rest of this article.
Milk Snake Appearance
Milk snakes are highly variable in size, and could range anywhere from about a foot and length to upwards of five and a half feet.
Possessed of a medium to bulky build, these snakes are powerful, and physically overtake small mammals along with other reptiles and amphibians once they mature.
But the most noticeable characteristic of milk snakes is their coloration, typically consisting of a red primary color with yellow stripes that are bracketed by thin black bands.
Milk snakes, along with other kingsnakes, are commonly confused with the far more dangerous coral snake for this reason. More on that in a minute.
Are Milk Snakes Poisonous or Not?
No, milk snakes are not poisonous to humans in any way, and aside from their ability to inflict a pretty good bite if you do provoke one or not truly considered dangerous to humans.
Caution: Common Rhyming Mnemonics Aren’t Totally Reliable
Such is the fame of the milk snake’s Batesian mimicry that several mnemonic rhymes have popped up to supposedly help people distinguish them from the truly venomous and far more dangerous coral snake.
Whereas the coral snake features an alternating pattern of red and black blocks divided by thinner yellow bands, the milk snake is primarily red in color with thin yellow bands bracketed by thinner black stripes.
This gave rise to a long-running rhyme: red touches black, venom lack; red touches yellow, kill a fellow.
Ostensibly, the red of the milk snake would it never touch its yellow portion, always being flanked by black instead.
However, this is not truly reliable, because many subspecies of the coral snake do not feature the typical coloration featured in the rhyme.
Further complicating matters, among eastern milk snakes some subspecies don’t resemble the coral snake at all, but might instead resemble cottonmouths or other pit vipers.
Interesting stuff, to be sure, but the best advice we can give you is this: Never, ever approach any wild snake no matter what the colors are unless you have an expert knowledge that allows you to positively identify it. Even then, be on your guard!
Where Do Milk Snakes Live?
Milk snakes are found all over the entire eastern half of the United States and also found in the southernmost parts of Canada.
These snakes are highly adaptable and inhabit all kinds of different regions and terrain although they typically prefer forested areas.
That being said, there are a common sight in and near human habitation wherever rodent infestations might be found since this is their typical prey, but you might also bump into milk snakes in fields and planes, and swamps or savannahs and even in sandy areas.
Will a Milk Snake Bite You?
Milk snakes might bite you if they are thoroughly provoked or frightened. These snakes are famous for their generally good and docile temperament, which makes them a favorite on the pet snake market.
Milk snakes greatly prefer to hide or escape if confronted, but if you manage to aggravate them they will defend themselves.
Defensive behavior begins with a threat display, typically coiling into an s-shaped pre-strike posture sometimes accompanied by feigned strikes.
Like many other snakes, milk snakes will also rapidly beat their tails against the ground or nearby vegetation in order to simulate the warning buzz of their rattlesnake cousins.
If handled or cornered, milk snakes will strike.
Will a Milk Snake’s Bite Hurt?
A bite from a milk snake will probably hurt. These snakes tend to be large and powerful, and though they have tiny teeth, they are razor sharp and hooked which help them grasp prey.
Though these teeth are unlikely to penetrate leather or other tough clothing they will easily lacerate skin if they make contact.
This could result in a nasty, painful bite wound, and one that could easily become infected from other factors or due to the abundance of bacteria in the snakes own mouth.
As always, you should thoroughly clean any snake bite, and seek medical attention if you notice redness, swelling or other problems, even if you are 100% certain that the snake that bit you is non-venomous.
Will Milk Snakes Attack People?
No, as a rule. Milk snakes are not aggressive by nature and generally want nothing whatsoever to do with people if they have any say in the matter.
If you come across a milk snake in the wild it is likely going to try and hide or just get away from you, and you’ll have to provoke the snake or seriously startle it in order to elicit a defensive response.
As detailed above, bites usually only occur as a result of prolonged aggravation or extreme close quarters contact.
Are Milk Snakes a Danger to Pets or Other Animals?
Milk snakes can be a danger to small pets, rabbits, bunnies, bird eggs and chicks or ducklings.
As mentioned above, these snakes are quite strong and physically overpower their prey to feed. Larger adults hunt rats and other rodents, along with other snakes.
But they are opportunistic feeders and are known to eat bird eggs and generally anything else they think they can overpower and swallow.
That means you need to keep an eye on puppies, kittens, rabbits and bunnies and of course look out for milk snakes hanging out near your homestead or farm if you raise any kind of poultry.
Milk snakes pose no direct threat to larger animals whatsoever, but as with any snakes the sudden appearance of one could spook or panic your animals resulting in injuries to themselves or to neighbors as they try to get away from it.
Should You Get Rid of Milk Snakes if You Can?
You should only try to get rid of a milk snake if it is directly threatening some of your animals, whatever species they are.
Milk snakes are constant predators of rodents and that can make them a friend to homeowners and farmers, because they tend to hang out near places where rodent infestations take place.
Barns, sheds, fields, crawl spaces and the like are all places where you could expect to see mice and rats running around, but once a milk snake sets up shop in the area you’ll watch their numbers going down dramatically.
But if the snake is a nuisance, you should not kill it if you can avoid it. Contact an animal control agency or a reptile specialist to come and take possession of the snake, or was just a little bit of caution they are easy to collect in a container for relocation.
Milk snakes play an important role in all of the ecologies where they are found, both as predator and prey, and you should avoid killing them if at all possible.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.