They Don’t Milk Cows

A few days ago, I received an email from a friend asking for an identification. She had found a snake near her house and wanted to know whether it was venomous. It turned out to be a harmless Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). When I was a child, our next door neighbor killed one and proudly showed it off. I was quite sad about it.

The Eastern Milk Snake allegedly gets its name because a farmer once saw one in a barn and thought the snake was there to get cow’s milk. In reality, the snake was probably following a food source. Milk snakes eat mostly rodents like mice, which are attracted to grain. Snakes actually help farmers and homeowners. By keeping down rodent populations, snakes reduce vectors (carriers) for Lyme disease, like the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). Milk snakes are found in many habitats, including farmland, disturbed areas, meadows, river bottoms, rocky hillsides, and forests.

Eastern Milk Snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) can be told from Northern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) by having a pattern on the head, square brown blotches surrounded by black on the back, and a more slender body. Photo by Will Brown / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

At two to three feet (60 to 90 centimeters) long, the Eastern Milk Snake is rather slim. It has medium-brown saddles edged in black on its dorsal (upper) surface and usually has a pattern on its head. Milk snakes are sometimes confused with the venomous Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). Although they are the same size, copperheads have a more stout, two-toned coppery-colored body with hourglass-shaped blotches and an unpatterned, triangular head.

Some anthropologists theorize that the fear of snakes that many people have may go back to our ancestors needing to be on the lookout for cobras on the African savanna. Only two of the fourteen snake species in Connecticut are venomous: the Northern Copperhead and the Eastern Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). The main purpose for venom is to secure prey. These snakes have hemolytic venom. It breaks down red blood cells, causing the prey to become inactive so that it can be safely swallowed by the snake. The chances of a person dying from a snakebite is near zero, both because of the rarity of being bitten and the availability of high-quality medical care. Neither species is aggressive, and will bite only if handled, threatened, or stepped on. It’s always good practice to be careful where you put your hands and feet when climbing in rocky areas.

A Connecticut Northern Copperhead (Agkisotrodon contortrix mokesan) eating an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). Notice the hourglass-shaped saddles on its back, two-toned, coppery color and unpatterned, triangular head. Photo by Danny Brass.

The Northern Copperhead is shy, mostly nocturnal, and mainly found in low-lying trap rock areas near water in the central part of Connecticut. The Eastern Timber Rattlesnake is a State Endangered Species and is now only found in a few higher, forested locations in the state. This species has been persecuted throughout history, often killed on sight and its dens blown up. Females have a very low birth rate, reproducing only a few times during their entire lives. I’m baffled as to why these snakes are killed when they are used to represent freedom. Think of the bright yellow Gadsden flag from the American Revolution, a symbol of civil liberties and disagreement with the government. It had an image of a timber rattlesnake above the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” So, the next time you see a snake, please just observe it from a distance and allow it to live free and not die.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

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