Identity Crisis

Copperhead vigilantes, beware.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

First, a point of technical distinction: a copperhead snake is venomous, not poisonous. As the (loosely accurate) mnemonic goes: “If you bite it and you die, it’s poison. If it bites you and you die, it’s venom.”

But second, although the Eastern copperhead is found throughout Virginia, the chances of actually being bitten by one are really quite low, and the possibility of dying from that bite nearly nonexistent. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are only 7,000 to 8,000 cases of venomous snake bites each year in the entire U.S.—including those suffered by wildlife professionals, venomous-snake owners, and people possessed of more beer than sense—and a mere handful of fatalities. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to be killed by a cow.

Still, there’s no convincing some people to love a snake, much less a venomous one that makes itself at home in a diverse range of habitats not excluding backyards, neighborhood parks, barns, rock walls and other human-frequented settings. Yet copperheads play an important role in our ecosystem, keeping a check in particular on the small rodents that spread diseases, damage crops and plague your lawn and garden.

Copperheads go where they can find food and shelter, explains Dr. Don Linzey of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. “They are found in all kinds of woodlands, hardwoods, pine forests, abandoned fields, swamps and marshes on higher ground, farms, urban areas, blueberry thickets,” he says. On his own property outside Blacksburg, he says, he has found a copperhead in his garage, on his driveway, in a boulder crevice on the edge of his lawn and twice in brush piles. 

And yes, that might sound like more copperheads than even a man who is coauthor of Snakes of Virginia would find entirely to his liking, except, Linzey points out, that’s only five snakes in the course of 39 years he’s lived on the 35-acre property. The fact is, copperheads don’t want to see you any more than you want to see them. They are not aggressive, they won’t chase you, and they will respond defensively only if stepped on or threatened.

“If you bite it and you die, it’s poison. If it bites you and you die, it’s venom.”

Still, it’s reasonable to take a few precautions during the warm months from April through September when copperheads are most active (in the winter, they hibernate). Try not to wade through tall grass (a good way, too, to reduce your risk of picking up ticks, which realistically pose a greater threat—there are more than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease alone reported each year), and don’t step or reach where you can’t see (always good advice) when outdoors. Copperheads like moisture, too: When it rains, it draws them out, and they will seek out the warmth of asphalt roads or driveways (if you’re walking the dog at night, take a flashlight). In late summer females give birth to between five and 15 live baby snakes (and yes, they are venomous at birth), each about 8 to 10 inches long. “That’s why we get more calls in late summer about people finding small snakes,” explains Linzey. 

It’s also worth noting, however, that so many snakes are wrongly identified as copperheads that Twitter’s favorite snake-ID guy, the wildlife ecologist Dr. David Steen, dispenses the hashtag #notacopperhead more often than a teenager snaps a selfie. “Many people in Virginia call almost every snake with a pattern an Eastern copperhead,” observes the Virginia Herpetological Society’s web guide to the snake, with a hint of asperity. And too often, those misidentifications result in the death of harmless snakes at the hands of would-be copperhead vigilantes.

So, a few things to look for. Young copperheads have a yellow tail tip (it’s used as a lure, according to Linzey, wiggled back and forth to attract small invertebrate prey such as frogs). Copperheads are marked by an hourglass pattern that is narrower on the back and wider at the sides—a key identifier that distinguishes them from other (non-venomous) Virginia snakes. They also have vertical (rather than round) pupils, as well as small heat-sensing “pits” located between the eyes and nostril that have infrared receptors that are quite sensitive at a distance up to 12 inches; copperheads can distinguish a temperature difference of .001 degrees centigrade, allowing them to strike prey with remarkable accuracy even in total darkness. They are not swimming snakes or climbers either, so look down: They’re usually found on the ground and under some kind of cover. 

You can test your copperhead-identifying skills at VirginiaHerpetologicalSociety.com. But if you live, work or play in a copperhead-friendly habitat, consider this—every snake you see will likely be outnumbered by all the ones you don’t.   


This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

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