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Pets Large & Small

Is it really a Copperhead?

Rusty Ryan
Conservation Chairperson of the South Mountain Chapter
 of the National Audubon Society

(4/2013) It took me 50 years, but I finally saw my first live copperhead in its natural environment last summer. I was informed that one was consistently observed in a hand placed rock wall. The sighting was northwest of Fairfield, PA in Hamiltonban Township. It may sound strange, but it has always been one of my wildlife observation goals in life to observe this snake. I’ve been lucky in the past few years as I also checked off my list a Wild Turkey in a tree and my first Gray Fox. I still wish to witness a groundhog (whistle-pig) in a tree as well.

Over the years, I’m frequently asked to identify dead snakes that folks drop off at my workplace – The Adams County Conservation District. Apparently the word is out that there is someone willing to identify snakes. Most of the snakes brought to me for identification are the Eastern Garter and the Black Rat Snake (immature). I can safely say I’ve never once identified one of the snakes as being the infamous copperhead that everyone thinks exists. Unfortunately, the people killed the snake first than asked questions about its identity.

This article is being provided to give more guidance to folks in distinguishing the copperhead from the non-poisonous snakes in hopes that fewer snakes will be unmistakably killed. ** You are not alone! The fear of snakes is referred to as Ophiodiophobia or Ophiophobia. About one third of all adults have this phobia which is also the most common reported phobia.

The Northern Copperhead is considered common and can be found all along the length of the Mason–Dixon border. It is a strikingly patterned snake though the coloration consists of several shades of brown. The most distinguished mark for the copperhead is the chestnut brown cross bands which resemble an hour glass. When the copperhead is viewed from above, the middle of the hour glass would be found along the backbone and the wider portions of the hour glass would be found along the sides. The hour glass pattern is the darkest coloration of the snake’s pattern. While the venomous snakes generally have a triangular shaped head, this feature is not the best way to identify poisonous snakes form non-poisonous snakes. Most snakes when angry or threatened tend to flare the head to look triangular versus oblong. The copperhead can reach over 40 inches but a safe average length would be 24’’-30".

The copperhead can be found in a variety of habitats but they are fond of rock outcrops. This habitat provides them with foraging (food usually consists of small mammals), shelter and basking for thermal reasons. They also seem to favor brush piles, wood slab/sawdust piles, utility right of ways, abandoned foundations and fencerows. The cold-blooded copperhead can be found primarily during the months of April through October. In the summer months, they are more nocturnal in their movements due to them needing to avoid heat from the summer days. Humid and warm nights during and after rainfall is prime time for copperhead activity. Thank goodness humans aren’t active outside during this same period or there would be many more encounters. They will seek shelter and hibernate through the winter months. The copperhead is a social snake and they will commune with other snake species such as rattlesnakes and black rat snakes (kills by constriction).

The copperhead kills its prey by venom that is secreted from two fangs. The venom from a copperhead affects the blood system whereas other poisonous snakes affect the central nervous system. While human fatalities are rare from bites of the copperhead, there usually is tissue damage around the bite. The odds of dying from any poisonous animal or plant is 1 in 3 million plus. These odds are about the same as dying from food poisoning. The odds of getting stuck by lighting are much more likely.

The best method to confirm whether or not a snake in Maryland or Pennsylvania is poisonous is one of two ways. Both methods would be best suited to identification when the snake is dead for reasons which should be obvious after reading the following.

Both the copperhead and the rattlesnake have elliptical (cat-eye) pupils whereas all of the non-poisonous snakes have round pupils like humans. The other sure fire method would be to inspect them on the underside. Between the tip of tail and the cloaca (anus), the scales on a poisonous snake are single whereas the scales on a non-poisonous snake have the scales split in half/doubled. * An interesting fact about copperheads is that the young have a distinct bright yellow tipped tail. Supposedly the colored tail serves as a lure to attract prey to snake. Young copperheads have fully functional fangs and the venom is as toxic as adults.

Tip: While the rattlesnakes are equipped with rattles that can provide warning, the warning is not always given. Copperheads, like most snakes will vibrate their tails when frightened and when this occurs on dry leaves, the sound can be a convincing warning.

There are a few local species of "lookalikes" which end up on the receiving end of someone’s shovel or other killing device. They are the Eastern Milk Snake, Northern Brown Water Snake and the Eastern Hognose Snake. I believe the Northern Brown Water Snake is the species which most closely resembles the copperhead. They are definitely found near or in water and they are aggressive biters and I definitely know from experience. Check some of the web sites out below for photos of each.

Besides the N. Copperhead, the only other poisonous snake that is native to the Mason-Dixon area is the Timber Rattlesnake. In Pennsylvania, this species is a CANDIDATE species and in Maryland, this species is a WATCHLIST species. I believe these rankings mean the species is dwindling and populations must be monitored closely. *For those folks who claim we have Water Moccasins (Cottonmouth) let me guarantee you that they just aren’t here naturally. The northern most range of the Cottonmouth is the Great Dismal Swamp in southern Virginia.

I trust this article has helped the reader make better decisions and to think twice about whether or not to kill a snake that most likely is non-poisonous. All snakes serve an important role in the ecosystem. Killing them just because their snakes are foolish.

Useful web links:


Read other articles by Rusty Ryan