The eastern milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) 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 eastern 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 eastern milksnakes in Ontario.
The milksnake breeds in the spring. Females lay from eight to 16 elliptical eggs, often in rotting logs, stumps or the burrows of small mammals. The eggs hatch in August or September, and the snakes mature in three to four years. Individuals may live seven to 10 years in the wild.
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
Threats and Trends
Human persecution is a significant threat to the eastern 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.
Current Status and Protection
The eastern milksnake’s status changed from Special Concern to Not at Risk under the Ontario Endangered Species Act in 2016. Milksnakes are listed as 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 some protection to individuals and their habitat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed the global status of the milksnake as Least Concern. The species’ status was last confirmed in April 2016.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.
What You Can Do
- Report a sighting
- Get involved in reptile and amphibian conservation on your property, on the road and in your community
- Donate to support reptile and amphibian conservation
- Watch for reptiles and amphibians on the road
- Don’t release pet reptiles and amphibians into the wild
- Read more about the eastern milksnake in the Ontario Reptile and Amphibians Atlas publication.