Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ October 2013

How to Tell a Copperhead from a Harmless Snake

By Jacquie Bokow

Some of our neighbors have spotted copperhead snakes along the Northwest Branch Trail.  Here are some facts you should know about these predators.

Copperheads are pit vipers, poisonous snakes named for the two heat-sensing pits between their eyes and the nostrils which are used to locate prey.  Copperheads feature the triangular head peculiar to pit vipers which is, as you might have guessed, copper- or rust-colored.

Copperheads are usually colorful and strikingly patterned snakes, with darker, chestnut-colored bands (some say hourglass-shaped) alternating with much lighter areas, but their shading can also run to dark gray with brown.  This camouflage is its protection and hunting advantage.

These venomous reptiles prefer to live in heavily wooded areas — like the Northwest Branch Trail — among rocks, or near streams or ponds where prey is plentiful.  Favorite hiding places include stone walls, sawdust, garden mulch or compost piles, under decaying stumps, in wood piles, under abandoned building debris, and under large flat stones.

A copperhead snake.  Photo by Tom Raley.

It is an ambush predator, preferring to hide and launch a surprise attack.  The copperhead serves an essential service, as it feeds on birds, rats, mice, voles, and other small mammals, and amphibians, such as frogs, lizards, caterpillars, even cicadas.

Copperhead snakes can mate in both fall and spring.  They are capable of breeding every year, and give birth to live young from late summer to early fall.  As few as three or as many as 18 young are born alive (not hatched from eggs), but the typical litter size is 10 to 12 young.  Newborn copperheads are colored and patterned like adults, except for the last inch or so of the tail, which is bright yellow.

When threatened, the snake will freeze in place, hoping the danger will pass without seeing it.  Do not try to kill them, as this how most people get bitten.  People rarely die from copperhead bites, but you should seek medical attention.

Sure It’s a Copperhead?

Some harmless snakes are mistaken for this pit viper.  Here’s a checklist of copperhead characteristics:

Do the darker areas have a very dark border on the edges?  Does the lower half of the face have vertical lines?  Are the pupils round?  Then it’s a harmless water snake, not a copperhead.

Does it have little contrast between the bands with the very dark border on the edges, a coffin-shaped head, round pupils, head covered with intricate markings, and a slender body?  Then it’s a corn snake, completely harmless and the most common pet snake in the country.

In October, the copperhead retreats to its underground den to hibernate until late February or early March, so local sightings should cease until spring. [Sources:,]   ■

   © 2013 NFCCA  [Source:]