You may already know that the Northern Cardinal is the State bird of Illinois. The White Oak is our State tree and our State flower is the Blue Violet. We even have a State fish - the bluegill.
However, you may not have ever thought about having a “State Snake”. I know that thought has never crossed my mind until I saw that last week Governor J.B. Pritzker officially added a snake to the list of our state symbols.
The idea came from a 12 year old 7th grader down in southern Illinois who attends Carterville Junior High School. His name is Gentry Heiple.
Heiple noted that the painted turtle is Illinois’ official reptile and now it also needs to have a state snake as well. Well, why not?
So the Eastern milksnake is now the official snake of Illinois. Now where in the world did this name come from?
The new Illinois state snake actually has many nicknames: checkered adder, highland adder, leopard-spotted snake, sand king, chicken snake, cow-sucker and my personal favorite - the thunder-and-lightning snake.
How did this snake get named a “milksnake” anyway? Ask anyone with an active farm and barn with livestock and they’ll tell you that where there’s a barn or outbuilding, there will be snakes.
Barns and outbuildings tend to attract rodents and snakes eat rodents. It’s merely a coincidence that these buildings also are where farm animals are housed.
However….somewhere down the line a Pecos Bill-type farmer came up with the tall tale that these snakes sucked cow udders for the milk - and the name “milksnake” was added to the list of other names that this snake already had.
With its patterned colorings of brown in dark borders, The Eastern milksnake, at first glance, resembles one of the poisonous snakes. However, this coloring is merely a protective mechanism and this snake is not poisonous. The Milksnake is not aggressive.
Because the Eastern milksnake can be mistaken for a poisonous snake, it is marked safe from natural predators - except for humans.
There are still unenlightened folks out there who go into “kill mode” when they see a snake - any snake. Such behavior is inexcusable and detrimental to the natural world.
Milksnakes blend in with their surroundings, such as leaf litter and spend their time in rotten logs, under stumps and beneath rock piles. Because they are a “burrower”, they spend much time underground.
Favorite prey of the Milksnake include rodents; shrews, voles, and mice. They will also consume small birds such as sparrows. Lizards, other snakes, frogs and insects will also be eaten.
Having a few Milksnakes around the property will actually help keep the rodent and sparrow population in check, which is both beneficial and thrifty for the landowner due to not having to spend money on traps and bait.
Having a State snake with the nickname of “thunder-and-lightning” added to our list of Illinois state symbols is pretty cool. Thanks to Gentry Heiple for that idea!
This article originally appeared on Star Courier: Jeanette Gibson outdoors column: Illinois' state snake