The Milk Adder

by Joseph DeSisto

Many times I was told, growing up in Maine, that if I looked hard enough I could find adders. People alleged to find them in parks, along rock walls, even in their homes. The word “adder” confused me, because this is the “true” adder:

The European adder, Vipera berus. Photo by Zdeněk Fric, licensed under GFDL.

The European adder, Vipera berus. Photo by Zdeněk Fric, licensed under GFDL.

That’s the European adder, a viper found in Europe and northern Asia. It is venomous, like all vipers, although not especially prone to biting. In New England, we only have two vipers, the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake. Neither are known to occur in Maine. Presumably copperheads never occurred here, prohibited by the cold winters.

The timber rattlesnake, meanwhile, is absent from Maine not because of the climate, but because the species was systematically exterminated through rattlesnake hunts. In Maine as in much of the United States, the timber rattlesnake has been stoned, burnt, and bulldozed out of our lives. Now it has become something of a legend, a name whispered when a rustle in the leaves is heard, or when a large snake slithers out of sight, just quickly enough to evade scrutiny.

A timber rattlesnake from Iowa. Photo by Psychotic Nature, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) from Iowa. Photo by Psychotic Nature, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Yet the adder of Maine is neither copperhead nor rattlesnake, but the harmless eastern milk snake. Why they should be called adders, I haven’t a clue. Despite looking nothing like a viper, milk snakes are sometimes confused with rattlesnakes and copperheads because they

a) shake their tails in dead leaves to mimic the sound made by a rattle,

b) aren’t afraid to hold their ground and defend themselves, and

c) are snakes.

That they should be killed is shameful, because milk snakes happen to be some of the most beautiful snakes in New England. As hatchlings they are creamy-white, with brick-red spots running down the back, each outlined in black as if traced with a fountain pen. With each year the snake loses a bit of its color — by adulthood most milk snakes are a pale gray, with red spots faded to a duller, but still handsome, chestnut brown.

A young milk snake or "milk adder" from Iowa. Photo by Psychotic Nature, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A young milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) or “milk adder” from Iowa. Photo by Psychotic Nature, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

For most of my childhood, the eastern milk snake was my herpetological holy grail. I spent hours wandering through fields, digging in wood piles, and painstakingly tracing the edges of rock walls. Finally I tried my luck at a car junkyard, where I was told that snakes liked to hide under the heat-soaked, mouse-infested hoods and spare parts. When I asked the manager if he had seen any snakes with red spots, he told me that yes, many of the snakes had red spots, but only after he killed them and nailed them to trees like the Old Testament bronze serpent.

Milk snakes are not uncommon, but they are very secretive. Unlike the sun-loving garter snakes and racers, milk snakes are mostly nocturnal and subterranean, emerging from hiding only when necessary to track their rodent prey. When they are uncovered, milk snakes often defend themselves violently, shaking their tail, rearing up, and striking. The six-inch-long hatchlings are just as tenacious, although their bite amounts to little more than a soft pinch.

An adult eastern milk snake -- less striking than a hatchling, but still a handsome snake. Photo by Trisha Shears, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

An adult eastern milk snake — less striking than a hatchling, but still a handsome snake. Photo by Trisha Shears, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

I never did find my milk snake, but I like to think those years taught me something about nature. Milk snakes, like so many wonders of the natural world, are not found – they appear, like angels or shooting stars or gusts of wind. I don’t look for milk snakes any more, but I still go for long walks, flip logs, and scrutinize rock walls. Without fail, something amazing is there, and with luck one day that amazing thing might be a milk snake. Until then I look forward to a few moments reveling in its beauty before, with a flick of its muscular body, it vanishes.

This blog is mostly focused on invertebrates, but you can expect me to write more about reptiles as well, because I love them. My last article on snakes focused on vipers, and the chemicals they use to track their prey.

Happy World Snake Day!

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4 responses to “The Milk Adder

  1. I live in Vestal NY, just about three miles for the PA border. Yesterday while picking some wild raspberries out in my field I heard what distinctly sounded like a rattle coming from high grass. Then the grass moved in a “snake escaping” fashion. I was taken aback. I thought to myself “What the heck was that? It sounded like a rattlesnake, but that’s not possible”? I am an avid outdoors women and I’ve never heard that sound before. It was not in any old leaves, just new growth. It also never grew to a feverish pich like you see on television programs before it fled. Could it have possibly bee a timber rattlesnake?

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    • Joseph DeSisto

      You are right on the edge of the timber rattlesnake’s range — so it is possible, although without seeing the snake itself there’s no way to know for sure. The New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation keeps track of rattlesnake sightings, so you might be able to find out from them whether they have been seen in your area. Although sometimes they like to keep locality data secret to avoid people going out to try and kill the snakes.

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  2. Dear Joseph I live in central maine and like you I grew up turning over rocks and logs always keeping my eyes open to what I may find and I loved finding snakes. Tonight as I was going through my wood shed I found a small 6″ to 8″ long snake that I had no idea what it was. As I attempted to catch it,it rattled it’s little tail and struck repeatedly at me. I had a small rag that I was able to catch it with. I placed it in a container so I could look it up and figure out what I’d caught. Well it’s a beautiful little milk snake. I’d never seen one before so was quite pleased to find it and know that it’s on my property. I read and enjoyed your article and am about to find a good place to release it. Thank you for your information and good luck finding more magic in nature. Matthew

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  3. Great article! I grew up in New Hampshire and have stumbled upon milk adders a couple times. We redid an old farm house and pulled a few out of the walls. They were large snakes, brownish with black spots. Last year a friend and I were removing generators from cell sites in upstate ny. We had been working since su rise and it was starting to get dark, my friend yelled over to me that the generator had a big snake living in it. I told him it was a milk snake and harmless. Being a snake liver I decided to take a look, 4′ rattler. He had been eating mice in the generator for awhile, we had a heck of a time getting him out. I shot a video of him, but it’s awful footage. I was trying to shoo Jim away from our work area and film. I wish I had taken a better video, I will probably never see another rattle snake. I pushed him down into the woods with a pry at. While we were cleaning up in the dark he came back. I was glad to get out of there without being bitten!

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