(The Center Square) – This is the year that Illinois officially recognizes the brightly colored eastern milk snake as its designated state snake.
Only 28 other states have official state snakes. On Jan. 1, Illinois joined that group.
Herpetologist Chris Phillips of the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Prairie Research Institute told The Center Square that he and his fellow Illinois herpetologists did not have a chance to vote on or to nominate other contenders for the official state snake designation.
“I found out about it on a Facebook post in one of our herpetology groups,” Phillips said.
One colleague was disappointed that the timber rattlesnake did not come out on top, he said.
“The timber rattlesnake needs some good PR,” he joked.
The fox snake was another contender, but the fox snake is not found in all parts of Illinois, Phillips said.
Credit for picking the eastern milk snake and lobbying the legislature to name it as the official state snake goes to now-eighth grader Gentry Heiple of Carterville Junior High School in southern Illinois.
Heiple did all the research and chose the eastern milk snake himself over the other contenders.
Illinois herpetologists agree with Heiple that the eastern milk snake has a lot going for it, Phillips said.
“It’s non-venomous. It’s docile. It’s beautiful. And milk snakes live all over the state,” Phillips said.
In southern Illinois, milk snakes are bright red with black and white checkerboard markings. In the northern parts of the state, the dominant red color is more of a muted reddish brown.
“Is it the most beautiful snake in Illinois? I’d say it’s close,” Phillips said. “To me they are all beautiful.”
With the help of State Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton, Heiple presented the idea of a state snake designation to the House State Government Administration Committee in 2022, and the idea took off.
State Senator Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, shepherded the bill in the state Senate. Fowler said he was honored to help make Heiple’s vision of an Illinois official state snake a reality. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he “could not be prouder of Heiple” for getting involved in the state legislative process.
Phillips said no one knows for sure how many eastern milk snakes live in Illinois. People who go hiking regularly will be quite lucky to spot one, he said.
“Snakes are very secretive,” he said.
The best place to see an eastern milk snake may be at the Illinois Wetlands Center in Cypress, where there is a replica of an eastern milk snake on display.
If a person finds a live snake in the wild, it is OK to pick it up, Phillips said. The milk snake is not poisonous, and it probably won’t bite. Like all snakes, however, the milk snake may defecate on the person who picks it up, he said. Defecating is a common snake defense mechanism.
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January 3, 2023 at 05:29PM