Eastern Milk Snake
Above (top): Note the elongated "saddle-shaped" blotches covering this snakes back. These can be distinguished from the dorsal blotches of fox snakes because they are reddish to rusty brown in color and outlined with black, while fox snake blotches are usually a solid dark brown or black.
Description: This is a medium-sized snake, reaching an adult size of 24 to 36 inches. They have rows of reddish brown to gray-brown blotches down their backs. These blotches are often outlined with black and usually presented over a gray background. Most have a Y or V-shaped mark on top of their neck. Milk Snake bellies have a distinct checkerboard pattern. Milk Snakes are members of the family Colubridae, which includes several non-venomous snakes found in Wisconsin.
Habitat/Ecology: Milk snakes are said to be found in wooded valleys, abandoned rock quarries, or old farmsteads that are close to water. They seem to spend most of the daylight hours beneath debris or underground but are occasionally seen above ground (when the temperature is suitable) hunting rodents. Milk Snakes are "constrictors", meaning that they wrap around their prey and squeeze it until it can no longer breathe. After the prey item is constricted, it is then swallowed whole. These snakes will over-winter in abandoned mammal burrows or crevices, sometimes with other snake species, that go below the frost line.
Remarks: The name “milk snake” was given by farmers who believed these snakes snuck into their barns at night to steal milk. In fact, the snakes were actually after their primary food source: rodents. Unfortunately, this myth led to many Milk Snakes being wrongfully killed. Due to their shy nature, and tendency to hide beneath debris, they are rarely encountered. If threatened, milk snakes will coil up, beat their tails against the ground and bite fiercely. This may give the impression that they are a venomous species, such as a rattlesnake, however, they are completely harmless. Remember, rattlesnakes have elliptical pupils and arrow-shaped heads. They are uncommon in certain areas and should not be taken for pets. Because their primary food source is rodents (which can damage crops and spread disease), these snakes should never be killed for any reason!
I have not encountered a Milk Snake within the La Crosse area. I have heard reports of them in nearby Crawford and Vernon Counties (Wisconsin), and suspect them to exist in La Crosse as well. If anyone knows of Milk Snakes near La Crosse, I would love to hear about it.
NOTE: Milk Snakes are easily confused with Fox Snakes to the untrained eye. Remember, Milk Snakes have black circles outlining their blotches. They also have a "Y" or "V" pattern on the top of their heads, whereas the head of a Fox Snake is normally void of pattern (or with faint patterns). Generally, they do not get as large as Fox Snakes (however, this can be hard to determine unless you are comparing adults of each species). Fox snakes also have a divided anal plate, while milk snakes have a single, or smooth, anal plate.