milk snake curving back
on sinuous red blotches,
Werner Elmker took this photo of a beautiful milk snake he came across in the evening on the trail near the arched bridge over the highway on the outskirts of town. I have occasionally encountered these reclusive snakes, but had never seen the black-and-white checkerboard belly. Once in early spring I pulled back a piece of cardboard mulch in the garden and found a milk snake curled up on top of her clutch of eggs. My grandmother claimed that a milk snake would sneak into the barn and "milk" the Jersey cow at night. However, snakes drink only water and it's hard to imagine any cow putting up with those sharp teeth! If a milk snake is in a barn, it's probably hunting for rodents, its main diet. The milk snake, a type of kingsnake, is nonvenomous and kills by constriction, unlike the coral snake, its poisonous look-alike. Coral snakes are not found in Iowa but are found in the Ozarks where our family vacationed. My father taught us how to distinguish friend from foe with the old adage, "red and yellow, kill a fellow, red and black, venom lack." Milk snakes are partially immune to the venom of poisonous snakes in their range, such as the timber rattlesnake, and will kill one if they meet, unless the rattler manages to defend itself by means other than biting.