Milk snakes and kingsnakes are referred to as ‘tricolors’ due to the three colors of their rings. They are both constrictor snakes that feed on rodents. The smaller species, such as eastern milk snakes, reach about 3 feet in length as adults. But eastern kingsnakes can grow to up to 5 feet long.
Although they look like the venomous coral snake, especially the scarlet kingsnake, both snakes are non-venomous and pose little/no threat to humans. However, the California kingsnake is known to eat other snakes in the wild, including rattlesnakes. That’s how they got their name (kingsnake).
Milk Snake vs. Kingsnake Comparison
The genus, Lampropeltis, has 14 recognized snake species, which are commonly known as the Kingsnake species. Lampro is a derivation from the Greek word, which means “shiny” and peltis, comes from the Greek word meaning “shields.”
The name Lampropeltis is an accurate representation for kingsnakes and milk snakes as both possess a smooth, glossy exterior with well-defined scales.
The scientific name for kingsnakes is Lampropeltis getula, and the scientific name for milk snakes is Lampropeltis triangulum. Milk snakes are a collection of 25 subspecies, which exists in the Lampropeltis or Kingsnake species.
Both kingsnakes and milk snakes are found across northern Mexico and the continental United States. They are powerful constrictor snakes and have adapted to kill their prey using asphyxiation.
King snakes are known for their ability to kill and eat venomous snakes and their immunity to venom from snakes that inhabit their range.
In the wild, most milk snakes are found in the colors red, orange, yellow, black, or white. The color combinations and widths of the bands typically vary between different subspecies of milk snakes.
Milk snakes can grow up to 20 to 60 inches in length. Their scales are smooth and shiny and typically have color patterns with alternating bands of white-black-red or red-black-yellow. It is common to find red blotches instead of bands or rings in some types of milk snakes as well.
Some scientists believe that milk snakes are evolved to mimic coral snakes, which are a highly venomous species of snakes from the Elapidae family. This is called Batesian mimicry, according to a study published in the journal, Behavioral Ecology and Social Biology.
Kingsnakes and milk snakes sometimes share a habitat with coral snakes. However, coral snakes have few predators, unlike the other two varieties. Furthermore, both coral snakes and milk snakes share similar transverse bands of yellow, red, and black.
Coral snakes are harmful to humans as well as potential predators. Therefore, it is believed that milk snakes and a few other species of kingsnakes (such as the scarlet kingsnake) may have evolved to mimic the appearance of coral snakes to keep predators away.
According to research in the journal, Science, avian predators avoided prey with red or yellow banded patterns on them, but more readily hunted snakes with green and blue rings.
How Kingsnake Subspecies Differ from Milk Snakes
Milk snakes are a subspecies of kingsnakes, but there are many qualities which separate the former from other subspecies of kingsnakes. The following are two non-milk snake varieties of kingsnakes and their differences and similarities to milk snakes:
Lampropeltis nigra also called the black kingsnake is a medium to large constrictor, with most adult specimens reaching 35 to 48 inches in length. Some black kingsnakes have also been found to reach maximum lengths of 58 to 72 inches.
Black kingsnakes have black bodies with widely dispersed cream or yellow speckles. The speckles are larger and higher in number, running along the sides.
Lampropeltis elapsoides or the scarlet kingsnake is typically found in the eastern and southeastern regions of the United States.
Scarlet kingsnakes are non-venomous constrictor snakes often found in pine savannas, pine flatwoods, prairies, pine-oak forests, cultivated fields, hydric hammocks, and many suburban areas. Some people may even find scarlet kingsnakes in their swimming pools, particularly during spring.
Scarlet kingsnakes used to be considered a subspecies of milk snakes, until recently when research by Pyron & Bubrink showed the phylogenetic distinction of scarlet kingsnakes and their close relationship to mountain kingsnakes in the southwestern United States.
They are the smallest of all species of kingsnakes, reaching 16 to 20 inches in length at maturity. The maximum recorded length of a scarlet kingsnake is 26.9 inches.
Scarlet kingsnakes are somewhat similar to milk snakes in appearance because they too have the tricolored patterns of red, black, white and shades of yellow to mimic coral snakes.
Lampropeltis getula, or the common kingsnake, also known as the eastern kingsnake or chain kingsnake, is another harmless variety of kingsnakes that is endemic to the US and Mexico.
There are currently eight subspecies of common kingsnakes that are presently recognized. In North Carolina, the common kingsnake is also called the pied piper.
Common kingsnakes have been a favorite among herpetoculturists for a long time. They have color patterns consisting of blue-black, glossy black and dark brown with a unique series of white rings along their bodies.
In adult specimens, the speckled kingsnake is the smallest at 36 inches and the largest, L. g. getula or the Eastern kingsnake averages 42 inches in length.
Previously considered a subspecies of the common snake, the California kingsnake is another popular choice among snake enthusiasts due to its wide range of color variations and docile nature. Adult kingsnakes generally reach a length of 30 to 42 inches and an average maximum of 48 inches.
In the wild, California kingsnakes are often black or brown with yellow or white markings bands or stripes. Striped specimens often show light-colored striped along their dorsal region, whereas in banded California kingsnakes, the bands are often wider as they approach the snake’s belly. Lavender and albino morphs of California kingsnakes have also been found in the wild.
California kingsnakes have the strongest squeeze in proportion to their body size compared to any other snake. Their squeeze is twice as powerful as a similarly sized python.
When disturbed, they tend to coil their bodies and hide their heads, followed by hissing and rattling their tails, creating a sound similar to that of a rattlesnake.
What Does the Kingsnake Species Eat?
Juvenile milk snakes generally consume slugs, crickets, and earthworms. Like other kingsnakes, adult milk snakes often consume lizards such as skinks, small mammals, birds, and their eggs, fish, frogs and other snakes.
They are more opportunistic eaters than corn snakes, and fox snakes and are known for consuming a wide variety of animals. However, the diet of a milk snake primarily consists of rodents.
Milk snakes and other kingsnakes have the “King” in their common name (like the king cobra) because they prey on other snakes. Some kingsnakes even consume venomous snakes.
Kingsnake or Milk Snake as a Pet?
Although the subspecies you choose is solely based on personal taste, the criteria by which you should evaluate a potential purchase are generally the same.
While searching for a healthy snake, look for the following qualities:
- A firm, rounded body.
- No caving on the sides, which may indicate possible broken ribs.
- Clear eyes with no signs of cloudiness or secretions.
- No signs of snake mites, which can be found in the feces or as a white/gray dust speckling on the reptile’s body.
- No widely opened mouth showing that the snake is struggling to breathe or is catching its breath. This may indicate a parasitic or respiratory infection.
- Shiny skin with no sores, discolored patches or scabs.
- The belly should look as good as the top.
- The cloaca should be clean and not have any urates or feces.
- No swelling towards the tail or above the vent.
- No excess mucous.
- A clean and whole tongue sheath.
- The inside of the mouth must be uniformly pink as any yellowy discharge, or red spots may be a sign of mouth rot.
Unless your snake has been handled previously, it may not be particularly tame when you first handle it. A healthy milk snake or kingsnake should move persistently and purposefully. You can see this by allowing the snake to move from one hand to the other.
A stressed or wild snake may jerk the upper region of its body in the air in an attempt to escape from your hands. If a snake is comfortable, it will remain wrapped around your arm for some time, while being interested in its surroundings, which can be seen by its tongue being alert to movement.