Kingsnakes and Milksnakes
©1994 Melissa Kaplan
One of the most interesting thing about some of the kings and milks, and something which unfortunately works only too well, is their mimicry of the venomous coral snakes. As most people cannot tell the difference and many believe that all snakes are uniformly dangerous, wild kings and milks are often met with the business end of a shovel rather than the respect they deserve for their efforts in keeping the rodent populations in check. To set the record straight, Lampropeltis and coral snakes can easily be told apart by the order of the color of their bands. Both snakes have yellow, red and black bands. Kings and milks have black bands touching the red bands; in corals, the yellow touches the red bands. A simple rhyme makes it easy to remember the order: Red on yellow, kill a fellow. An alternative rhyme, yellow on red, you're dead" is a bit of an overstatement, as the vast majority of people who do get bitten by a coral snake just become very ill, recovering with no residual effects.
As Lampropeltis are easily bred in captivity, there is never a reason to purchase a wild one. In California and now, in Arizona, there are stringent laws concerning the wild collection and the sale of captive bred kingsnakes about which many pet stores are unfamiliar. Captive breeding has produced numerous color and pattern morphs, ranging from different types of albinos to striped and mottled markings. Some of the most striking, however, are the most natural - vivid bands of colors, or the simple black and brilliant yellows of the Florida and Sonoran kings.
Kings and milks are oviparous, laying fifteen or so eggs. Hatchlings emerge from the eggs anywhere from six to ten weeks after being laid, and range in size from eight to thirteen inches long. Adults range in size from three feet up to seven feet, depending upon the species. With proper care, kings will live 20 or more years.
Your Kingsnake or Milksnake
Unless a snake has been handled a lot by a number of different people, it will not be particularly tame when you first pick it up or when it is first handed to you. The snake should move purposefully and persistently; let it move from hand to hand. A wild or highly stressed snake is going to wave the upper half of its body in the air trying to escape as soon as it is free of your hands. When the snake is comfortable with you, it will spend some time wrapped around your hand or arm, actively interested in its surroundings as evidenced by tongue flicking and alert to movement. When you first hold the snake, feel along its entire length to see if you can feel any bumps, lumps or unusually hard or soft areas. When you put the snake down, check your hands to see if there are any mites. Look at the snake move to see that it is moving smoothly, with no abrupt hitches in gait or tremors.
Hatchlings may be housed in a ten gallon enclosures. Medium sized adults may be housed in twenty gallon enclosures, but you might as well get hatchlings and young adults set up in a tank large enough for a full grown one. The longer and larger snakes should be housed in a 60 gallon enclosure. Try to get high-sided enclosures so that you may put in some vertical climbing and above-the-floor basking areas. Milk and king snakes, like all the other snakes in the family Colubridae (typically, non-venomous snakes considered to be more highly evolved than the boas and pythons), have only one functioning lung. Due to the lack of space inside the confines of their rib cage, all organs are elongated and so there is now room for only one working lung. Their left lung is still there, withered to a vestigial stub. Because of this somewhat reduced lung capacity, and the fact that when such snakes cannot stretch fully out on a regular basis, they are prone to respiratory infections. For this reason, it is important to give the snake as much stretching room as possible.
Heating pads (either people heating pads or ones developed for reptiles) can be placed under half the tank, or inside the tank, under half the substrate (depending on the heat source and the substrate - do not put pads of any type in contact with any substrate made with paper or shavings products).. Under no circumstances is a hot rock to be used as is or as the sole source of heat. If you want to use one for a species who basks on hot rocky surfaces in the wild, keeping in mind that desert species stay out of the direct sun during the heat of the day, then it must be connected to a thermostat so that you can control the temperature and check it often. These "rocks" heat up to 105+ F on the surface, too hot for the majority of reptiles, and capable of causing severe burns.
Bright white Incandescent and other heat lights are impractical as the sole source of heat for two reasons: they must be turned off a night, thus allowing too great a drop in temperature, and they bother the snakes, especially the nocturnal ones. With a large enough enclosure, you can use a white light heat source for daytime, and a radiant heat source, such as a ceramic heating element (CHE) or nocturnal reptile bulb, for night. Radiant heat from below can be supplemented with a non-light emitting heat source such as a CHE. If the ambient room air temperature is always warm (in the low to mid part of the gradient required), then you may be able to make do with only one heat source, at least during part of the year..
Note: some books and herp keepers recommend just putting in a bowl of water once a week for a limited period of time. Until such time as you learn to speak Lampropeltis, or your snake learns to vocalize its needs, or you both communicate by telepathy so that you will know when exactly it is thirsty, keep water in there all the time.
Enclosures may range from the strictly utilitarian (substrate, caves, water bowl) to being a vivarium, outfitted with substrate similar to that found in the snake's native habitat, rocks, branches, backdrops, etc. It is easier to start of utilitarian, and then design and plan the interior design once you see your snake in place and it has acclimated to captivity.
Once you are sure your snake is parasite-free and healthy, you can continue using these papers, or use one of the following substrates, chosen based on what your type of habitat your king is native to: untinted aspen shavings (cedar and redwood are toxic, and there is some feeling that their relative, the pine, may be toxic as well); Astroturf or outdoor carpeting; number three aquarium gravel (not silica) and clean playground sand, washed and dried before use; mixture of sterile potting soil and sand and/or orchid bark shreds. This latter substrate is what caused early king-keepers such problems--the surface of this type of substrate was too often damp. When using this soil mix, the top several inches should be very dry. Desert vivaria can be outfitted with a clean playground sand.
The real key to substrates is what is appropriate for your species of king or milk, how difficult they are to clean and change, and how likely you are to do what is necessary as often as it is necessary. The more difficult or complicated you make the inside of the enclosure to clean, the less likely a busy person is going to do it. Find that delicate balance between providing as much interest and variety for your snake and what you can reasonably expect to be able to do on an at least weekly basis.
Hatchlings can be started on one-two day old pinkie mice. If frozen mice are used, make sure to defrost thoroughly (leave on counter, under a light, or soaking in warm water). Feed one to two mice every two to seven days, depending upon growth rate desired. Generally speaking, a snake will grow faster being fed several small prey a couple of times a week rather than one big prey once a week. The smaller prey are more digestible than the larger prey, so the snake is getting more nutrition from them.
Subadults can be offered bigger mice one or more times a week. A good rule of thumb is to feed prey that is as big girth-wise as is the widest part of the snake's body. You will find that they are hungrier in the spring and summer, winding down during the fall; many stop feeding altogether during the winter months even though the may still be somewhat active.
Adult size is generally reached within three years at which time the amount and rate of feeding can be reduced. Feed adult mice or just weaned pink rats. At this point, judgment must come into play. You want your snake to be well rounded, with no visible line of backbone or ribs. The amount of food it takes to maintain that weight and appearance varies between species. Start with once a week; if the snake looks too lean, increase to one mouse twice a week. Another rule of thumb: snakes over four feet long need at least two adult mice each week.
The General Care and Maintenance of Common Kingsnakes, by David Perlowin. 1992. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Lakeside CA.
Kingsnakes and Milksnakes, Ronald G. Markel. 1990. TFH Publications, Inc.
Snakes of the World, by Scott Weidensaul. 1991. Chartwell Books, Seacacus, NJ.
Living Snakes of the World, John M. Mehrtens. 1987. Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
TIGR Reptile Database: Colubridae: Lampropeltis
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