Snakes in the garden, part 4: copperheads

Previous posts in this series:

Snakes in the garden, part 1: flower bed snakelings

Snakes in the garden, part 2: the black snakes

Snakes in the garden, part 3: garter and green snakes

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I think this picture makes it clear how the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) got its name. This snake had climbed up onto our raised deck and coiled against the side of the house. I found it when I stepped outside, barefoot, early one spring morning.

I have good news, bad news, and good news.  The good news is that there is only one species of venomous snake in most of the North Carolina piedmont. The mountains have rattlesnakes and copperheads.  The coastal plain has rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, coral snakes, and copperheads.  Apart from a small population of timber rattlesnakes that may  be hanging on in northern Durham and Granville Counties [1] most of the piedmont has only copperheads.

The bad news is that copperheads are very common, and you will almost certainly run across more than one if you live in the piedmont and like to garden.

But, the good news is that copperheads are really very mellow snakes.  They just want to sit quietly in ambush, waiting for a mouse to walk past, and they really don’t want to waste venom on a giant primate who’s far too large to eat.

That’s not to say a copperhead won’t bite, but you’ll probably need to actually grab it or step on it first.  I’ve had several close encounters, but I have never been bitten–the copperheads have never even struck at me, except in one case where I was clearly being very annoying  and probably deserved to be bitten (more on that below).  Once, I yanked up a clump of crab grass and a baby copperhead fell out.  Another time, I was kneeling to weed a dense patch of stiltgrass (Microstegium) and felt something brush against the inside of my knee.  I looked down just in time to see the tail of a large copperhead disappear between my legs. After my heart rate and adrenaline levels returned to something approaching normal, I looked around and found the snake coiled placidly a few feet away  Last summer, a copperhead discovered a small hole where the foundation of our house meets the driveway slab:

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We walked within a couple of feet of it every time we left the house, but it never bothered us.  After a few days, it moved on, presumably to find a den with less traffic.

So there’s no need to panic when you see a copperhead.  If you can see it, you’re probably in no danger of being bitten and in any case, copperhead bites are almost never life threatening.  According to Palmer and Braswell [1] there has been only one well-documented case of a lethal copperhead bite in North Carolina–an unfortunate one-year old child who was bitten more than fifty years ago.

When I find a copperhead close to the house, I usually relocate it to the woods so that we’re less likely to step on it.  The most effective tools for the job are an old fish tank and a broom. I lay the tank on its side in front of the snake and then use the broom to gently encourage it to climb inside.  The clear, flat sided aquarium seems to make a better trap than a bucket with curved sides which the snake can see and avoid more easily.

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A trapped adult copperhead ready to head back to the woods after nearly giving me a heart attack while I was weeding.

If you can get past the Venomous Snake! Aaaagh! reaction, I think you’ll have to admit that copperheads are really quite handsome.  They’re beautifully camouflaged for life among the leaf litter, with coppery yellow/brown head and bands of chocolate brown and tan.  Baby copperheads have bright yellow tails that they use to lure prey, mostly small frogs or lizards:

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A young copperhead showing its yellow tail tip (far left).

A number of non-venomous snakes are frequently mistaken for copperheads, but identification isn’t difficult if you look for a couple of key features.  Non-venomous colubrids in North Carolina have eyes with round pupils, but copperheads, like all pit vipers, have vertical pupils like a cat:

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Notice the vertical pupil in the eye of this copperhead.

If you don’t want to get close enough to examine a snake’s eyes, look at the bands.  Copperheads have dark bands that are widest near the belly and narrow along the back.  Conversely, the light bands are widest along the back and narrower near the belly.  Non-venomous snakes like corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) have saddle-shaped blotches along the back.  If looked at from above, the dark markings are wider than the light–the opposite of a copperhead seen from above.

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Not a copperhead. This is Galadriel, my daughter’s pet corn snake.

Water snakes are also sometimes mistaken for copperheads, or the copperhead’s relative the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) which lives on the coastal plain.  Similar to the corn snake, the banding of a northern watersnake is the opposite of the copperhead’s pattern.  In the northern watersnake, the dark bands are widest along the back and narrow towards the belly.

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Also not a copperhead.  This northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) is attempting to swallow a bullhead catfish in the Eno River near Durham, NC. Compare its banding pattern to that of the copperheads above.

And of course, if a snake dives into the water to escape, that’s a pretty big hint that it’s a water snake, not a copperhead.

So this concludes my series on the snakes of my piedmont garden, but I live in hope of finding even more species among the perennials.  Perhaps this will be the year that we catch a mole kingsnake or an eastern hognose.  If so, I’ll post pictures here.

Oh, in case you were wondering what I did that actually made a copperhead angry enough to strike at me:  I can confirm that it is not a good idea to put a copperhead in the refrigerator, even if you plan to take it out before your spouse gets home from shopping.  You might think that it will cool the snake down and make it easier to pose for photographs, but by the time you get it back outside to a patch of picturesque moss it will have warmed up again and will be very annoyed.

Reference:

  1.  Palmer, W.M., and Braswell, A.L., 1995, Reptiles of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press.
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One thought on “Snakes in the garden, part 4: copperheads

  1. I think a table would help to clarify the identification points . . . . for those of us who admit that snakes of any sort give us the willies . . . . even if we have managed to advance beyond the “hit them with the garden spade” stage.

    Like

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