Friday, May 31, 2013


Photo:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

I am sorry to say that I have not really been doing my duty to write about snakes during the Year of the Snake, but now I will start making up for that.  And today I will write about an American snake that is called the Copperhead.  You can find this snake mostly in the eastern and southern parts of the country, including in Missouri, where I live.  Except that I hope I never find one because it might bite me, and that would be bad!

The Copperhead got its name because it has a copper-colored head.  But maybe you already knew that.  The scientific name for this snake is Agkistrodon contortrix.  Other common names are chunk head, death adder, highland moccasin, narrow banded copperhead, pilot snake, poplar leaf, red oak, red snake, white oak snake, American copperhead, and (in Spanish) cantil cobrizo.

The head of the Copperhead is triangular, and the eyes have vertical pupils.  The body can be copper, orange, or pinkish-brown, with brown bands crossing it.  These bands are shaped sort of like an hour glass.  The length of the Copperhead's body can be more than 4 feet.

Copperheads like to live in forests and mixed woodlands.  A lot of times, they hang out on rock outcroppings and ledges, but you can also find them in low, swampy areas.  In the wintertime, Copperheads hibernate in dens or limestone crevices, and they often share these spaces with Timber Rattlesnakes and Black Rat Snakes.  The favorite places that Copperheads hide are stone walls; sawdust, mulch or compost piles; wood piles; under decayng stumps, in abandoned building debris, and under large stones.

Sometimes it's hard to see a Copperhead because of its coloring, so people might get bitten when they step on one by mistake.  But usually, a Copperhead will try to get away from people.  They only bite when they are cornered or startled.

Photo:  Ian Jensen

Copperheads are pit vipers, so when they hunt, they wait in ambush until something warm comes by, such as a mouse, and then the snake strikes.  But if a Copperhead is hunting insects, it goes out looking for prey to eat.  One thing that Copperheads really think is yummy is a cicada that has just come out of its shell.  I like cicadas, too, as I have told you several times before, so I have that in common with these snakes.  The only difference is that Copperheads can slither up trees and catch the cicadas up there, but I have to wait for them to fall on the ground.

Other things that Copperheads eat are mice, chipmunks, voles, frogs, lizards, insects, and even small birds.  Like other snakes, they swallow their food whole and then let their stomachs digest everything.  A Copperhead may only eat 10 or 12 meals a year.

The bite of a Copperhead is poisonous, but it will not usually kill you unless you are a mouse or a frog. But even if you don't die from the bite, it can still make you feel really bad.  Symptoms of a bite can include extreme pain, tingling, throbbing, swelling, and severe nausea.  You can also get permanent damage in your muscles and bones.

Some researchers found out that the venom of the Southern Copperhead has a protein called contortrostatin  in it.  This venom stops the growth of cancer cells in mice and also keeps tumors from spreading to other places in the body.  A lot more research has to be done in order to figure out if this venom stuff works the same way in humans.

Copperheads breed in late summer, and then they give birth to live baby snakes.  The normal size of a litter is 4 to 7, but sometimes there are as many as 20.  The mama snake does not take care of the babies.  They just have to start fending for themselves.  Young Copperheads look like adults, except that they have a bright yellow tip on their tails.  This tip is handy because it is good for luring frogs and lizards for the babies to eat.  Copperheads can live to be about 18 years old.  This is longer than most basenjis live, which doesn't seem fair, somehow.


  1. Piper, you should write about ribbon snakes!!

    I agree, it doesn't seem quite fair that copperheads should live longer than dogs and cats. But then again, some parrots live much longer than us humans...

    1. Thanks for commenting on my blog and for the suggestion about ribbon snakes. I will definitely have to write about them because they are pretty.
      Sincerely, Piper

  2. hey i recently found a baby snake which i belive is a rat snake but it has the same or close to the pattern on the baby copper head is there any why to tell the differenct and its realy small so what do i feed it?

    1. You can try googling rat snakes and copperheads on the internet to look at pictures and see what the difference between them is. Also maybe you can find advice on what to feed baby snakes. I am no expert on snakes, so I can't really answer your questions. Sorry!

  3. great info
    I run into them all the time here in bumpass va

    1. Be careful! Getting bit would not be fun!