Ramble On

Monday, November 2, 2009

Battle of the Species: Snake on the Terrace

So, once again, I was working on a chore, whistling while I worked, and suddenly, I hear a plaintive, “JIM, what kind of snake is this?” Mary had once again nearly put her hand on a snake, this time resting peacefully on the hose bib at the front of the house. As before, she calls me for help AFTER she has disturbed it.

Once again, we had a nonvenomous species here, which I have tentatively identified as a milk snake. While there is a lot of good material on Wikipedia about these snakes, I am quoting from the Iowa state on Herpnet – link: http://www.herpnet.net/Iowa-Herpetology/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=51&Itemid=26, and the extensive description is summarized below.

In researching this snake I encountered two interesting factoids. The first is that the color variation of this snake can range from the golden brown we saw to a number of other patterns, including red, black, and yellow, so that the snake mimics a coral snake – which would be dangerous. The second factoid of interest is the source of the name – as quoted in the herpnet article; it was once believed that these snakes drank cow milk!

“The milk snake is a medium sized Iowa snake that is 24 to 52 inches in length, but quite often maintains a slender build. It is nonvenomous. Although this snake's blotched pattern remains consistent, its general coloration is quite variable. Some specimens can be beautifully light colored, having a light gray or brown ground color and bright to rusty red body blotches. Others can look a lot like fox snakes having an overall brown coloration. Still, others can be a dark gray with little or no difference in color between the ground color and blotches, only the black borders (which are always present) indicate the presence of blotches.”

“Milk snakes feed on a wide variety of animals including mice, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, reptile eggs, birds and birds’ eggs. They are a type of kingsnake and will consume venomous snakes when they chance upon them. They are at least partially immune to the venom of the venomous snakes in their range and many venomous serpents will use defensive tactics other than biting to protect themselves from kingsnakes. Young snakes comprise a large portion of a baby milk snakes diet, but they are not found to be the most significant food item for adults (Breckenridge, 1944). Adults consume mainly rodents. Milk snakes are constrictors and kill their food by suffocation.”

“Milk snakes are so named because it was once believed that these snakes would enter barns and steal milk from cows. This is false; snakes only drink water. They would become sick if they were to drink cow’s milk. Snakes also have sharp teeth; no cow would stand still for that! The milk snakes were in the barns actually helping the farmers by looking for rodents to eat.”
This is the second time I’ve seen one of these rare snakes – they may not be so rare, but are rarely seen, since they are nocturnal. The first one I saw was a dead one, similar in size to this one (by the way, the bulge in the snake body here indicates that it had recently eaten). A link to that earlier sighting, now two years ago, is here: http://hawksbillcabin.blogspot.com/2007/10/battle-of-species-2-snakes.html
This time, I coaxed the snake up onto the rake I was using and then tossed him into the front yard, away from the house. I am happy to find these nonvenomous species around, like I’ve said before, and especially ones that are known to eat young venomous snakes. But we prefer to keep them outside – AND away from the house.

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