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Anna B. Comstock

The Milk Snake, or Spotted Adder

Teacher's Story

The grass divides as with a comb, a spotted shaft is seen,

And then it closes at your feet, and opens farther on.

—Emily Dickinson.

dropcap image HIS is the snake which is said to milk cows, a most absurd belief; it would not milk a cow if it could, and it could not if it would. It has never yet been induced to drink milk when in captivity; and if it were very thirsty, it could not drink more than two teaspoonfuls of milk at most; thus in any case, its depredations upon the milk supply need not be feared. Its object, in frequenting milk houses and stables, is far other than the milking of cows, for it is an inveterate hunter of rats and mice and is thus of great benefit to the farmer. It is a constrictor, and squeezes its prey to death in its coils.

The ground color of the milk snake is pale gray, but it is covered with so many brown or dark gray saddle-shaped blotches, that they seem rather to form the ground-color; the lower side is white, marked with square black spots and blotches. The snake attains a length of about three feet when fully grown. Although it is called commonly the spotted adder, it does not belong to the adders at all, but to the family of the king snakes.

During July and August, the mother snake lays from seven to twenty eggs; they are deposited in loose soil, in moist rubbish, in compost heaps, etc. The egg is a symmetrical oval in shape and is about one and one-eighth inches long by a half inch in diameter. The shell is soft and white, like kid leather, and the egg resembles a puffball. The young hatch nearly two months after the eggs are laid, meanwhile the eggs have increased in size so that the snakelings are nearly eight inches long when they hatch. The saddle-shaped blotches on the young have much red in them. The milk snake is not venomous; it will sometimes, in defence, try to chew the hand of the captor, but the wounds it can inflict are very slight and heal quickly.


The milk snake, or spotted adder.

Lesson L

The Milk Snake, or Spotted Adder

Leading thought—The milk snake is found around stables where it hunts for rats and mice but never milks the cows.

Method—Although the snake acts fiercely, it is perfectly harmless and may be captured in the hands and placed in a glass-covered box for a study in the schoolroom.


1. Where is the milk snake found? Why is it called milk snake? Look at its mouth and see if you think it could possibly suck a cow. See if you can get the snake to drink milk.

2. What does it live upon? How does it kill its prey? Can the milk snake climb a tree?

3. Where does the mother snake lay her eggs? How do the eggs look? How large are they? How long are the little snakes when they hatch from the egg? Are they the same color as the old ones?

4. Describe carefully the colors and markings of the milk snake and explain how its colors protect it from observation. What are its colors on the under side?

5. Have you ever seen a snake shed its skin? Describe how it was done. How does the sloughed-off skin look? What bird always puts snake skins around its nest?

     I have the same objection to killing a snake that I have to the killing of any other animal, yet the most humane man I know never omits to kill one.

Aug. 5, 1853.

     The mower on the river meadows, when he comes to open his hay these days, encounters some overgrown water adder, full of young (?) and bold in defense of its progeny, and tells a tale when he comes home at night which causes a shudder to run through the village—how it came at him and he ran, and it pursued and overtook him, and he transfixed it with a pitchfork and laid it on a cock of hay, but it revived and came at him again. This is the story he tells in the shops at evening. The big snake is a sort of fabulous animal. It is always as big as a man's arm and of indefinite length. Nobody knows exactly how deadly is its bite but nobody is known to have been bitten and recovered. Irishmen introduced into these meadows for the first time, on seeing a snake, a creature which they have seen only in pictures before, lay down their scythes and run as if it were the Evil One himself and cannot be induced to return to their work. They sigh for Ireland, where they say there is no venomous thing that can hurt you.

—Thoreau's Journal.