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:
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.
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.
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.
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!