by Whit Gibbons

August 22, 2010

During the 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 questions:"

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.

A: Copperheads 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: Absolutely. 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.

Next week: more snake questions, including, What do you do about dogs and children when venomous snakes are around?

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