Status: Special Concern (federally 2014)
Value to Property Owners and Ecosystems:
Milksnakes are excellent rodent hunters and help to keep rodent populations under control! Thus, more milksnakes often means less mice on your property. These snakes also are non-venomous, shy and non-aggressive, so they are friend not foe!
Eastern milksnakes are long (60-90cm) thin bodied snakes with smooth and slightly shiny scales. They have red-brown blotches that are outlined in black all along their bodies (on their backs they have larger blotches and one or two rows of smaller blotches along their sides). They also have rounded heads when viewed from above (in contrast to the Massasauga rattlesnake) and often have a white Y or V shaped pattern on the top of their head/neck.
Diet: What do they eat?
Eastern milksnakes are generalists with small rodents (they help keep they our of your cottage) making up the main portion of their diet; however they have been known to also eat amphibians, worms, smaller snakes, small birds, and even fish. Milksnakes tend to be more active at night when their preferred prey is also most active.
Habitat: Where do they live?
The eastern milksnake is found from the Carolinian zone in southern Ontario to as far east as Brockville and Ottawa and north into Sudbury, with historical sightings further north into Sault Ste. Marie.The Land Between represents a large portion of their habitat.
The eastern milksnake is limited to southern/central Ontario due to temperature restraints for egg laying which requires a long incubation period of 50-70 days at a constant temperature of at least 24°C. In this region they can thrive in a variety of habitats both natural and human influenced, but prefer heavily forested areas with access to open edge habitat (where the forest meets and open area like a feild) for thermoregulation (keeping the body the right temperature through external heat).
As autumn approaches and the temperature drops, eastern milk snakes begin preparing for hibernation by moving below the frost line. There they use many different hibernacula (locations where they will hibernate for the winter) from natural rock-crevices to man-made building foundations, and other debris.
Behaviour and Life Cycle:
Eastern milksnakes have a lengthy lifespan for snakes, with wild individuals living from 10-20 years, and captive bred individuals sometimes living longer than 20 years.
Milksnake’s home ranges are typically between 10-20 hectares. They utilize most of this range for foraging, thermoregulation, and hibernation. Here they are often predated (eatten) by raccoons, foxes, possums, birds of prey, corvids, coyotes, domestic pets, larger rodents, and even other milksnakes. To combat being predated when threatened, they often “buzz” their tails to ward off potential predators. This sound and action mimics that of the Massasagua rattlesnake.
Reproduction: Although there is limited data on milksnake reproduction, they are known to take 3-4 years to reach sexual maturity. Eastern milksnake can lay 8-16 eggs in a single clutch and research suggests that females only reproduce every 2 years.
Threats/Why are they a Species At Risk
1. Habitat loss or degradation: The traditional habitat of the eastern milksnake has been negatively effected by development. This has resulted in the destruction of significant portions of their range and has resulted in habitat fragmentation (pockets of habitat are disconnected from each other).
2. Road mortality: Milksnakes often bask on rocks to elevate their body temperature (because they are cold-blooded). Unfourntuately, this means that roads look like nice BIG rocks to our lovely milksnakes! This fact, combined with habitat fragmentation (they must cross the road to reach desirable habitat) means that snakes are often found on roads.
3. Persecution: Due to their colouring and tail rattling the eastern milksnake is sometimes intentionally killed by people who mistake them for rattlesnakes.
Conservation in Action: What conservation is occurring?
Each of the above threats are currently being combated by conservationists. Some examples are listed below:
Habitat loss: There are growing efforts to identify and protect known milksnake habitat. In these areas research is being done into milksnake distribution and abundance.
Road mortality: Research is being conducted to evaluate “hotspots” for road-killed milksnakes. This information can then be used to install signage, wildlife passages and fencing where necessary.
Persecution: Educational programming and outreach material are being created/distributed to inform the public about milksnakes and their importance to ecosystems. These campaigns also help people to learn the difference between milksnakes and Massasagua rattlesnakes.
How can you help the eastern milksnake?
1. Create habitat for the milksnakes: In fragmented habitats milksnakes prefer areas with lots of cover objects (things they can hide under) that are some distance away (the further the better) from the forest edge. Place cover objects on your property to encourage them to visit!
2. Drive cautiously: Do not drive distracted. Stay vigilant when driving and help to keep our non-human kin safe!
3. Tell your friends and family that snakes are friends: Share information about how to identify snakes and the benefits they provide through rodent control!
FUN FACT: In the past milksnakes were often found in barns due to the warmth and abundance of prey present. This led farmers to believe that the snakes were drinking milk straight from cows’ utters, hence the name milksnake! Although this is untrue (because snakes only drink water), the name still stuck!
Environment Canada. 2015. Management Plan for the Eastern Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Management Plan Series. Environment Canada, Ottawa.