Snakes in the garden, part 4: copperheads

Other 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

Snakes in the garden, part 5: an exciting morning

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:


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.

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:

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.

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.

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.


  1.  Palmer, W.M., and Braswell, A.L., 1995, Reptiles of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press.

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

Previous posts in this series:

Snakes in the garden, part 1: flowerbed snakelings

Snakes in the garden, part 2: the black snakes

Eastern garter snake
An eastern garter snake emerging from under fallen leaves in the garden

Eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) and Rough green snakes (Opheodrys aestivus) are occasional visitors to our garden, although their preferred habitat is probably closer to the creek that runs through a conservation easement adjacent to our property.

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)

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A garter snake that I photographed in Durham County.

The eastern garter snake has a huge range, from Massachusetts to Florida on the east coast, extending west to Minnesota and Canada north of the Great Lakes, south to Louisiana and east Texas on the Gulf of Mexico.  It is a member of the same subfamily, the Natricinae, that includes North American water snakes and European grass snakes.  Like many of their relatives, garter snakes can be grumpy when first caught, but although I have grabbed many garter snakes in my life, I have never actually been bitten.  I have been on the receiving end of their defensive musk secretions, which they enthusiastically smear all over the place as they thrash around. (Their larger relative, the northern water snake is another matter.  Those will bite.)

Smelly defenses notwithstanding, garter snakes usually settle down and become quite tame in captivity.  Generations of children, yours truly included, have kept them as pets.

Garters eat frogs, toads, salamanders, earthworms, small fish–just about anything they can subdue and cram into their mouth, actually.  Given their fondness for slimy, wet prey, I suspect that the occasional garters in the garden have strayed from the creek in search of a sunny basking spot.

garter snake with bulge from recent prey
A darker garter snake, also from Durham County. Note the bulge, perhaps an unfortunate frog, and the blue color visible where the skin is stretched.

Various other subspecies of Thamnophis sirtalis are found throughout North America from coast to coast, Canada to northern Mexico.  If you garden anywhere in the United States, apart from the desert southwest, there is probably a garter snake nearby.

Maritime garter snake
A maritime garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis pallidulus), close relative of the eastern garter snake, that we spotted sunning itself among the sand dunes on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada.

Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus)

Rough green snake
A beautiful rough green snake

Green snakes are long and thin and perfectly camouflaged for a life of climbing through the bushes in search of  insects and spiders.  We have only seen a couple in our garden, and those were crossing the driveway or a path where their bright green scales were a beacon rather than protective coloration.  I wonder if they might be more common than they seem, just hard to spot.  Supposedly, they prefer thick vegetation near water, and certainly they are common around a lake close to my workplace that I sometimes walk around at lunch time.  There too, I usually notice them only when they cross the path in front of me.


When the children and I catch a green snake, it will thrash around in a panic for a few moments but then quickly calms down and climbs slowly from hand to hand or up our arms.  Sometimes, they will mock strike, but they never bite.

I hope that by avoiding pesticides and densely planting the garden with a mix of shrubs and perennials to attract a wide variety of insects, I am creating good habitat for these beautiful snakes.

green snake in bushes
A slightly out-of-focus green snake disappearing into the bushes. Even my camera’s autofocus couldn’t decide where the plants end and the snake begins.

Snakes in the garden, part 2: the black snakes

Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) coiled around an orchid in a large flower pot

Start with Part 1 of Snakes in the Garden.

The North Carolina piedmont is home to three large constrictors that are mostly black in color:  the eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulus), black racer (Coluber constrictor), and black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus).  Although kingsnakes are found in our area, I have not been lucky enough to find one in my garden.  Racers and rat snakes, however, are common and–at four to six feet long–difficult to miss.

Black racers and black rat snakes are both colloquially referred to as “black snakes.”  The two species are roughly the same size and at first glance can be difficult to tell apart.  As a rule of thumb, if a black snake lifts its head to watch you and then slides rapidly away, it’s probably a racer.  If it freezes, perhaps coiling back in a defensive position, and then moves away slowly and methodically, it’s probably a rat snake.

Black Racer (Coluber constrictor)

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A black racer periscoping out of a rosemary bush to keep an eye on me.

More than any other snake, black racers give an impression of alert intelligence. They actively prowl our flower beds, examining vole holes, flower pots, and other possible cover for prey.  They’re quite difficult to photograph, because they disappear so rapidly when they realize they have been spotted.

From time to time, I uncover clutches of racer eggs hidden in mulch piles or rotten stumps.  Usually they have already hatched, and each leathery eggshell has a small slit where the hatchling cut its way free with its egg tooth. A few years ago, I accidentally uncovered an intact clutch.  As it was now exposed to the elements and predators, I decided to collect the eggs and incubate them in an old fish tank.   The eggs hatched at the end of July, and the hatchlings were immediately ready to defend themselves by striking vigorously.  They also vibrated their tails, producing a buzzing sound that was surprisingly similar to a rattlesnake’s warning.

Racer hatchlings showing the juvenile pattern that will eventually darken to solid black. The brownish object is an eggshell stained by tannins from the mulch it was buried in.

After taking the hatchlings to school for “show and tell,” we released them in the garden, hoping that they would grow up to defend it against rodent pests.

Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus)


Like racers, juvenile rat snakes are patterned with saddle-like blotches, and they darken with age. However, many adults retain traces of this juvenile pattern and never become solid black.

Rat snakes are excellent climbers and frequently raid nests for eggs and nestlings. Our neighbors who keep hens sometimes lose eggs, despite their best attempts at snake-proofing the chicken coop.  To protect our bluebird nest boxes, we have mounted metal baffles on the posts.

Rat snakes can climb straight up the trunks of large trees by gripping the furrows in the bark.

Despite their predilection for raiding bird nests, I like having rat snakes around the garden.  They help to control rodent populations, and it is always exciting to see such a large and exotic animal going about its business,apparently undisturbed by our presence.

A large rat snake visiting our deck.  The cats were not amused.

Snakes in the garden, part 1: flower bed snakelings

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Shiny! Eastern worm snake with the gardener’s fingers for scale. Perhaps I should have cleaned the clay from under my fingernails before taking a picture.

I have been fascinated with snakes since I was a child, so I love living in a state where I stand a fairly good chance of seeing one whenever I go for a walk outside.  Of the thirty-seven snake species native to North Carolina, at least eight call our garden home. Three of those species are tiny serpents that actually live under the mulch or burrow in the soil of the flower beds.  I’ll discuss them here and save the larger snakes (and the single venomous species) for another day.

Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus)

This is perhaps the oddest of the little flower bed snakes.  A worm snake has smooth, shiny scales, reduced eyes, and a small pointed head that allows it to burrow rapidly through loose soil hunting for earthworms.  They are really very pretty little animals, with glossy scales, dark chocolate brown back, and pinkish belly, brighter in some specimens than others.  Worm snakes are hardly larger than a big earthworm, and unsuspecting gardeners might actually mistake one for a worm.   In fact, they can burrow and disappear so rapidly that unless you are paying attention, you could dig them up all day and not notice them.  To catch one, I usually grab a handful of the soil or mulch that the snake has disappeared into, and then sift it between my fingers to see if I was successful.

I almost never see worm snakes except when I am digging holes for new plants, but very occasionally I find them under rotten logs or flower pot saucers or will uncover one when pulling up a clump of weeds.  Once–and only once–I found one climbing through the twigs of an azalea bush on a very damp and warm April morning.  I was surprised to find the large specimen shown below hiding in a hot gravel pile in full sun:

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When I pick up a worm snake, it usually coils tightly around my fingers and pushes against my hand with its pointed head.  I assume it is attempting to burrow:

A lighter colored specimen with a pale brown, rather than pink, belly.

Smooth earth snake (Virginia valeriae)

Smooth earth snakes are about the same size as worm snakes and have very similar habits, but they not appear to be as specialized for burrowing.  Their eyes are larger than those of worm snakes, and they look more like typical little snakes.  Their glossy bodies can be either dark gray or pale gray with dark spots.

Smooth earth snake. A dark specimen without obvious spots.

Like worm snakes, they are very inoffensive and never attempt to bite.  They are great snakes for small children to gently catch and examine:

The first snake that my daughter caught all by herself.
Another kid-caught earth snake
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A smooth earth snake shedding its skin

Brown snake (Storeria dekayi)

Brown snakes lurk in loose mulch but do not seem to burrow in soil.  Like worm snakes and earth snakes, they are inoffensive and never attempt to bite.  One year, the kids and I kept a brown snake for several weeks and fed it slugs, which it consumed enthusiastically.  Clearly, this is a useful snake to have around the garden.

The scales above a brown snake’s eyes give it a fierce look, but there’s no need to worry unless you are a slug.


Other flower bed snakes

Depending on where in the piedmont you live, you may also find several other small snakes in your flower beds.  Rough earth snakes (Virginia striatula) are reported to be common in some vacant lots in Durham and Raleigh, and I have seen a southeastern crowned snake (Tantilla coronata) that was caught in a Durham city park.  If your garden is adjacent to a creek or moist woodland, you may find a redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata), which resembles a brown snake with a bright orange belly, or perhaps a ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus), surely one of the prettiest North Carolina snakes.  Keep your eyes open.

A little ringneck snake that I found under a rock beside New Hope Creek in Orange County