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King Snakes (sometimes called Milk Snakes) are some of the most beautiful snakes in the world. Because they are moderately sized, not poisonous, usually quite docile, and are easily kept in captivity, they are very popular with both beginning and experienced snake handlers.
King Snakes are found throughout the United States, southern Canada, Central America, and parts of South America. These highly-adaptable constrictors live in arid deserts, swamplands, farmlands, grasslands, pine and deciduous forests, mountains, and riparian habitats. In the wild, they consume a variety of prey, including other snakes, amphibians, lizards, rodents, birds, and even rattlesnakes and cottonmouth snakes. (King Snakes are unique among snakes because they are immune to poisonous snake venom...and they will go out of their way to track down, kill, and eat poisonous snakes...so they are very good neighbors to have!!)
Southern King Snakes look very much like venomous coral snakes, but they are NOT poisonous. Both snakes have colorful yellow, red, and black bands. However, King Snakes have the black bands touching the red bands. In coral snakes, the yellow touches the red bands. This simple rhyme makes it easy to remember the order:
“Red on Yellow, Kill A Fellow!
Red on Black is a Friendly Jack!”
King Snakes can grow from three to seven feet, depending on their subspecies. With proper care, they can live 20 or more years. Like all snakes, they are escape artists. King Snakes are the most tenacious about testing their environment to find an escape route. If there are any small gaps or holes in your tank lid, or if the lid “gives” at all when pushed against, your King will escape. And once they escape, they are very difficult to find again. Make sure that your tank is extremely secure, so that you don’t lose your snake.
Hatchlings may be housed in a 10-gallon enclosure with a tightly-fitting locking lid. Medium-sized adults may be housed in 30-gallon enclosures. The longer and larger snakes should be housed in a 60-gallon enclosure. Snakes that cannot stretch out fully on a regular basis are prone to respiratory infections, so plan ahead! Make sure your snake’s enclosure is big enough for its special needs.
King Snakes live in a wide range of environments that include extreme heat and cold. In northern and mountainous regions, Kings hibernate through the cold winters, and are active during the summer months. Desert species will hide in cool crevices during the hottest part of the day, becoming active at dawn and dusk. Snakes in captivity do well with more regulated temperatures. In general, provide a temperature gradient ranging from 76 - 86˚, with nighttime drops into the low 70's.
Special reptile heating pads that are manufactured to maintain a temperature about 20˚ higher than the air temperature may be used inside the enclosure. There are also adhesive pads that can be stuck to the underside of a glass enclosure. Heating pads made for people, available at all drug stores, are also available; these have built-in high-medium-low switches and can be used under a glass enclosure.
All snakes are susceptible to thermal burns. For this reason, do not use a hot rock in your King’s tank.
Provide a bowl of water for your snake. This is generally all the humidity it will need. It will often soak in the water, especially prior to shedding. Be sure to change its water regularly, especially if it’s dirty. 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 learn to communicate by telepathy so that you will know when exactly it is thirsty, keep water in there all the time!
Kings are rather secretive snakes, preferring to curl up in a rocky crevice or under a log. Shelters of some sort should be provided. They can range from commercially available "rocky" caves, half-circles of tree bark, and upside-down flower pots to cardboard boxes with an entry door cut in one side.
For bedding, shredded coconut bark is attractive and safe for your snake (unlike cedar and redwood shavings, which are poisonous), or you can use a utility carpet which can be easily removed and cleaned. Kings are curious, and enjoy exploring their environment. Try adding branches and layers of piled rock in your tank to simulate a natural environment.
Captive-born hatchlings are fed newborn pinkie mice. If frozen mice are used, make sure to defrost thoroughly (leave on counter, under a light, or soaking in warm water until soft all the way through). 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 will get more nutrition from them.
Kings are typically hungrier during the spring and summer. They may “wind down” in the fall, and not eat during the winter even though they are still somewhat active. Full size is reached by three years of age. Feed adult Kings one full-sized mouse, or a pinkie rat, once a week unless they look too lean; then increase their diet to one mouse twice a week. Generally speaking, snakes over four feet long need at least two adult mice each week.
After your new snake has settled into its new home, begin gently picking it up and handling it. Don’t worry if it lashes its tail, hisses, or anoints you with a smelly musky substance from its vent. You’re a hundred times bigger than it is, and it’s quite reasonably afraid of you. Be patient and persistent. Eventually it will realize that you aren’t a threat, and it will relax in your presence. At that point, you can start carrying it around the house with you. However, never leave it untended. Snakes love to crawl into seat cushions or behind furniture, and can easily escape.
If your snake wraps around your arm or neck, unwind it by gently grasping its tail and unwrapping it. If you start at its head, you will find that your snake is stronger (or at least more stubborn) than you are!
With proper care and attention, your King Snake will be a beautiful, gentle lifetime friend. Enjoy!