Nature News: Milk snakes often mistaken for timber rattlesnakes

Published June 24 with and in The Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily, and other local newspapers.

milk snake
Milk snake along trail on South Moat Mountain Sue Pike photo

While hiking up South Moat Mountain last week a large milk snake crossed the trail.  This was a beautiful snake-reddish blotches ringed in a darker brown against a grayish-tan background.  So of course, since this is one of the snakes most often confused with a rattlesnake, we began wildly speculating about whether it was actually a rattlesnake, and whether there are any timber rattlesnakes in New Hampshire. We were afraid to get too near its head-end; milk snakes aren’t venomous but I think they are much more aggressive than garter snakes.  I’ve been attacked by milk snakes in the past-instead of slithering quickly away like their garter snake cousins they seemed more likely to rear up and try to bite.  However if you do some research into our local snakes you’ll find that milk snakes are considered to be quite passive-they won’t bother you unless you bother them….which makes me rethink my stance on the aggressiveness of these snakes….the only times they seemed more aggressive than a garter snake were times when I was trying to pick one up.  Who was the aggressor in that interaction?

As we tried to get close to this particular milk snake it started rattling its tail, we excitedly looked for rattles-but there were none (we still wanted it to be a rattlesnake).  It did make an effective rattlesnake mimic, its vibrating tail rattling the dried leaves in a convincing rattlesnake-esque way. 

The origin of the name ‘milk snake’ most likely comes from the old belief that these snakes sucked the milk from cow udders (there is a bird that has the colloquial name ‘goatsucker’ for a similar incorrect belief).  This is likely because milk snakes are common around barns-though they are there in search of mice and rats rather than cow udders.  This is one of the many reasons you should leave these snakes alone.

There are nine species of snakes in Maine, none are venomous.  There are eleven species of snakes in New Hampshire, only the endangered timber rattlesnake is venomous. There are fourteen species of snakes found in Massachusetts, only two of them (the endangered timber rattlesnake and the endangered copperhead) are venomous.  There is a trend here-fewer snakes the further north you go (because snakes are cold-blooded they don’t do well in northern climates), and the chance of encountering a venomous snake becomes less and less likely. So, you should assume that if you see a snake around here that you think is a rattlesnake, it is most likely a milk snake.   

Timber rattlesnakes used to be found in both Maine and New Hampshire.  The autumn 2014 edition of Northern Woodlands has a lovely description of the northern expansion of timber rattlesnakes into New England following the last glaciation.  “Approximately 8,000 years ago, a period of global warming called the Hypsithermal Interval stimulated timber rattlesnakes to move north from the vicinity of Long Island. They followed river corridors – the Delaware, the Hudson, the Connecticut, the Housatonic, the Merrimack – and eventually reached southern Quebec and southwestern Maine. Wherever passageways in bedrock or talus led to frost-free winter retreats, the snakes established colonies….Today, rattlesnakes thrive where the human population is sparse – land that is wide-open, wind-swept, and remote.“  (Ted Levin).   

Currently there are no known populations of timber rattlesnakes in Maine, and only one population in New Hampshire (making it one of the most endangered wildlife species in the state).  The reason for this is unrelenting persecution by humans-they are hunted and they are collected and are therefore gone. They are no longer present in Maine due to hunting and collecting by humans.   I found it incredibly sad that the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department web page about snakes has to explicitly state “PLEASE DO NOT KILL SNAKES. New Hampshire has only one venomous snake, the timber rattlesnake, which is protected by law. If you think you see a timber rattlesnake, please leave it alone, and let us know. There is no reason to kill a New Hampshire snake.”  I would suggest that the next time you see a snake get excited that you are seeing one, that some are still here, managing to coexist with us.