BRINGS OUT SNAKES AND QUESTIONS ABOUT THEM
August 22, 2010
spring and in late summer, I get lots of questions about snakes. Snakes
are conspicuous in the spring when they first emerge from their winter
dormancy but actually reach their highest numbers in August and September.
Snakes that lay eggs have babies that hatch in late summer and fall; those
that do not lay eggs hold their babies in the body and give live birth
in late summer and fall. Over the next month or so, more snakes will be
present than at any other time of the year, which will prompt people to
ask questions about them.
The most common question is of the "what kind of snake did I see
in my yard" variety. People often send a photograph, which aids in
identification. Sometimes people want to know more than simply what kind
of snake they saw. The series of questions below came from someone living
in coastal South Carolina, who said, "I am very reluctant to kill
any animal, including snakes. However, in the past month, I have seen
a snake in my backyard three times that greatly resembles a copperhead.
People have told me that some rat snakes look a lot like copperheads and
I've looked online at some pictures, but, it isn't clear to me which type
of snake I'm seeing. I would appreciate if you could answer the following
The questions relate to copperheads, a venomous species found throughout
most of the eastern United States from New England to Texas. Copperheads
are widespread in every southeastern state except Florida. The questions
are applicable to most areas where copperheads occur.
Q: Is there an easy way to identify a copperhead or other venomous species?
I can get within a few feet of the snake, often at night.
have a distinctive pattern of dark markings shaped like hour glasses that
are narrower at the top than on the sides. The body is tan or light brown.
Some individuals of certain harmless species, including corn snakes, banded
watersnakes and hognose snakes, may superficially resemble a copperhead
because any can have a reddish coloration with darker markings. Check
out photographs of copperheads in illustrated snake books or online. Once
you are familiar with the copperhead's body pattern, it is easy to distinguish
this snake from the other species.
Q: I've been
told that copperheads rarely use their venom and that it isn't very potent.
Could you comment on this?
A: On the
contrary, when copperheads feel threatened, they are more likely to strike
at someone than is any other species of venomous snakes native to the
Southeast. It is true that they often strike with a dry bite (injecting
no venom), but it would be incorrect to say they "rarely use their
venom." As far as potency, they are the least potent of the large
pit vipers, with the venom being drop-for-drop 1/10 that of an eastern
diamondback rattlesnake. Nonetheless, they are capable of delivering a
painful and potentially serious bite.
Q: Is there
any known means of reducing the likelihood of snakes, especially copperheads,
from coming into the yard?
A: All products
reputed to discourage snakes have been tested in tightly enclosed indoor
situations and have no applicability to outdoor settings. All the products
I have seen for sale that claim to keep snakes away have been scams. You
can reduce potential encounters with snakes by keeping trafficked areas
of your yard clear of woodpiles, boards and other debris where snakes
can hide or look for prey.
Q: Do copperheads
have natural predators?
A kingsnake will eat any copperhead it runs across that is smaller than
itself, and the kingsnake is immune to the venom if the copperhead bites
it. Many other animals will eat small copperheads if they can kill them
without being bitten. Raccoons, possums, herons, crows, hawks and owls
probably eat many copperheads every year.
more snake questions, including, What do you do about dogs and children
when venomous snakes are around?
you have an environmental question or comment, email