Milk Snake vs Copperhead: 5 Key Differences

Written by August Buck
Published: February 5, 2022
Image Credit Siarhei Kasilau/Shutterstock.com
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Comparing milk snakes vs copperheads is a common occurrence, given that these two snakes share the same range in many parts of North America. However, with some simple tricks, you can learn how to identify these reptiles with ease, especially given how many differences they have. For example, milk snakes are from the Colubridae family, while copperheads are from the Viperidae family. But this is only where their differences begin.

Milk snakes and copperheads are easy to tell apart once you learn about some of their distinguishing features. Given that milk snakes are non-venomous and copperheads are venomous, it is useful to know the differences between these two. However, any snake found in the wild is best left alone if you happen to find one!

In this article, we will address the differences between milk snakes and copperhead snakes so that you can learn how to identify them and know key facts about them. Let’s get started.

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Comparing Milk Snakes vs Copperheads

Milk snakes are not venomous while copperheads are.

A-Z-Animals.com

Milk SnakeCopperhead
Venomous?             No                           Yes
Size           2-5 feet; skinny and uniform 2-4 feet; thicker body overall
Color       Orange, black, yellow, whiteShades of brown, tan, and white
Habitat   United States woodlands         North American woodlands and leaf piles
Markings  Distinct stripes in different colors Distinct diamond or hourglass pattern
Eggs         Yes No (live birth only)

The 5 Key Differences Between Milk Snake vs Copperhead

Milk snake vs copperhead
Milk snakes are striped or banded, with alternating colors; copperheads are uniquely patterned with hourglasses or other distinct patterns, and they are always in shades of brown or gray.

Seregraff/Shutterstock.com

There are key differences that separate milk snakes vs copperheads. Milk snakes are non-venomous snakes, while copperheads are known for their dangerous venom. Copperheads are also a very different color and pattern from milk snakes. Copperheads are often brown and patterned with hourglasses, while milk snakeskin includes many bright colors and has stripes. 

There are a few other differences between milk snakes vs copperheads. Let’s learn more about them now.

Milk Snake vs Copperhead: Markings and Coloring

One of the main differences between milk snakes vs copperheads is their markings and color. Milk snakes are striped or banded, with alternating colors; copperheads are uniquely patterned with hourglasses or other distinct patterns, and they are always in shades of brown or gray. You can easily tell the difference between copperheads and milk snakes based on their markings alone.

Milk snake vs copperhead
Milk snakes use constriction to kill their prey, while copperheads use their weak venom to slowly kill their meals.

Breck P. Kent/Shutterstock.com

Milk Snake vs Copperhead: Hunting

Another difference between milk snakes and copperheads is their hunting techniques. Milk snakes use constriction to kill their prey, while copperheads use their weak venom to slowly kill their meals. Milk snakes and copperheads eat a similar diet, though copperheads can eat much larger prey than milk snakes can.

Copperheads prefer to eat larger rodents, birds, and insects, while milk snakes eat smaller rodents, eggs, and even other snakes. Another unique hunting method that copperheads don’t share with milk snakes is that they inject their prey with venom and leave them be until they die. This keeps a copperhead safe, given that their venom isn’t powerful enough to kill anything immediately.

Milk Snake vs Copperhead: Venom

Speaking of venom, this is another thing that differs between milk snakes and copperheads. Milk snakes are a non-venomous snake variety, while copperheads have a fairly mild venom inside of them. It can still be dangerous to leave a copperhead bite untreated, and milk snakes can also bite you.

However, no matter the amount of venom present in a copperhead, they can still be dangerous. They are a commonly found species of snake, often sunning and spending time with other snake species. While they shouldn’t attack unless provoked, both milk snakes and copperheads can still bite.

Milk snake vs copperhead
Copperheads prefer to eat larger rodents, birds, and insects, while milk snakes eat smaller rodents, eggs, and even other snakes.

Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

Milk Snake vs Copperhead: Pupils and Head Shape

A key distinguishing feature for milk snakes vs copperheads has to be their pupils and head shapes. Copperheads have vertical narrow slits for their pupils, and milk snakes have rounded pupils. This is an easy way to tell the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes, though you may not want to get that close to a snake in order to find out!

Milk snakes have a rounded and uniform head to neck ratio, while a copperhead has a more bulbous and triangular-shaped viper head. This is another common theme with venomous snakes, though it isn’t a guarantee- there’s always an exception to every rule!

Milk snake vs copperhead
Copperheads have vertical narrow slits for their pupils, and milk snakes have rounded pupils.

Jeff W. Jarrett/Shutterstock.com

Milk Snake vs Copperhead: Body Shape

Finally, the body shape matters when it comes to milk snakes vs copperheads. Milk snakes are slender and narrow snakes, with a uniformly shaped body from head to tail. Copperheads have a large viper head with a wider and thicker body. Given these opposite sizes, the overall body length and size between these two snakes is very different.

For example, copperheads do not grow as long as milk snakes do because of their wider bodies; milk snakes are simply more slender and longer. This can be an easy way to help you identify these snakes should you stumble upon one in their natural habitat!

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Milk Snake - Woman Holding Milk Snake

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About the Author

I am a non-binary freelance writer working full-time in Oregon. Graduating Southern Oregon University with a BFA in Theatre and a specialization in creative writing, I have an invested interest in a variety of topics, particularly Pacific Northwest history. When I'm not writing personally or professionally, you can find me camping along the Oregon coast with my high school sweetheart and Chihuahua mix, or in my home kitchen, perfecting recipes in a gleaming cast iron skillet.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are milk snakes harmful?

Milk snakes can be dangerous, but they do not have any venom. In fact, many milk snakes are bred for pet stores and homes to keep as pets. However, this doesn’t mean that a wild milk snake is friendly. Many milk snakes can also mimic venomous snakes to protect themselves, so it’s always best to give them space should you see them in the wild.

How poisonous is a copperhead?

Copperheads are poisonous, but they rarely bite with a lethal amount of venom. They are also fairly shy and prefer to avoid conflict whenever possible.

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