The milksnake is grey or tan with alternating red or reddish brown blotches that are distinctly outlined in black along its back and sides. The coloration of this species tends to be brighter on juveniles but is still very pronounced on adults. This snake has a white and black chequered belly and usually has a distinct Y- or V-shaped mark on the back of its head. The milksnake, which has smooth scales, is a long, narrow snake and can grow to over a metre in length, although most individuals are much smaller.
The milksnake may be confused with the northern watersnake, eastern foxsnake, eastern hog-nosed snake and eastern Massasauga. The northern watersnake’s patterning consists of horizontal banding rather than blotches and is very faint on a much darker body. Eastern foxsnakes have a yellow to light brown body with brown blotches that are not outlined in black (although the blotches of juvenile foxsnakes can have dark edges). The eastern hog-nosed snake has a distinct upturned nose. The eastern Massasauga is very thick bodied compared with the long, narrow milksnake and has a rattle on a blunt tail, a vertical pupil and a triangular head. When threatened, the milksnake vibrates its tail and, especially when it comes into contact with dry vegetation, makes a buzzing or “rattling” sound. This behaviour, combined with the snake’s blotchy patterning, causes many people to mistake it for a rattlesnake. Juveniles of these and other species look very similar and can be very difficult to differentiate.
Milksnakes can be found in a variety of habitats but tend to use open habitats such as rocky outcrops, fields and forest edge. In rural areas this snake may be common, especially around barns where they thrive on the abundant mice. The milksnake hibernates underground, in rotting logs or in the foundations of old buildings.
View an interactive map of the known ranges of milksnakes in Ontario.
The milksnake breeds in the spring. Females lay from three to 24 elliptical eggs, often in rotting logs, stumps or the burrows of small mammals. The eggs hatch in seven to 10 weeks, and the snakes mature in three to four years. The lifespan of the milksnake in the wild is unknown, but one snake caught as an adult lived another 21 years in captivity.
The name of this species is derived from the false belief that it takes milk from cows in barns, which it often inhabits. Milksnakes cannot drink milk, however, and are attracted barns by the abundance of mice, the primary prey of this species. It is a semi-constrictor: it seizes prey in its mouths and coils around the prey until it has suffocated. Predators of the milksnake include raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes.
Other names: eastern milk snake, eastern milksnake, Lampropeltis triangulum temporalis, Lampropeltis doliata temporalis, Lampropeltis doliata triangulum, Coluber triangulum, Ophibolus doliata temporalis
Human persecution is a significant threat to the milksnake. People often kill it on sight, mistaking it for a venomous massasauga rattlesnake due to its colour and tendency to vibrate its tail when disturbed. Habitat loss due to urbanization, road construction and conversion of natural areas to agricultural uses are further threats to milksnake populations in Ontario. Like most snakes in the province, milksnake are commonly killed on roads.
The eastern milksnake’s status was delisted from being a species at risk in Ontario in 2016. The milksnake was listed as Special Concern under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007. Milksnakes are listed as of Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act. The species has also been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. These acts offer protection to individuals and their habitat. The habitat of this species is further protected in Ontario by the Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has not assessed the global status of the milksnake. The species’ status was last confirmed in 2010. Additional detail about legal protection for species at risk in Ontario is available on our Legal Protection page.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.