Watch Out for Copperheads
by Ro Wauer
It is again that time of year, with its hot and humid conditions, when we can expect copperheads in moist, brushy areas. These habitats include gardens and landscaped sites surrounding the house and other buildings. Although very few people ever die from copperhead bites, anyone who might be somewhat allergic to their poison could have serious problems. A friend in Virginia, an avid gardener, tells me she has been bittten three times with little affect. And Alan Tennant, in his book "Field Guide to Texas Snakes," mentions that "not a single death resulted from 308 copperhead bites over a 10-year period" in Texas. But nevertheless, I am extremely careful when working in my garden plots this time of year. Copperheads also favor streamsides and moist rocky places, and the Trans-Pecos copperhead, a different species than the broad-banded copperhead, occurs almost exclusively in cane patches along the Rio Grande.
The local broad-banded copperhead, known to scientists as Agkistrodon contortrix, is a rather stout snake that usually is 22 to 30 inches long; the largest one recorded was 37.25 inches. They are easily identified by their rich coppery brown color and thirteen to twenty darker crossbands over the back. Their heads are also rather distinct. The head, where its recurved, movable fangs are located, is wider than the neck, a characteristic typical of all pit vipers. It also sports an elongated pinkish brown patch along and above each jaw, and it has vertically elliptical pupils.
A heat-sensor is located on each side of the head a little below and behind the snake's nostrils. This sensory organ acts as a heat receptor to detect prey and to help the snake aim when striking at warm-blooded prey. A warm-blooded human hand is also detected in this same manner. And herpetologist Roger Conant, in his classic "A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America," warns that for freshly killed specimens, "Reflex action may last a long time, and supposedly dead pit vipers have been known to bite."
During summer, copperheads normally spend their days hidden from view in heavy vegetation and are active only at night. During cooler weather they may be more active during the daylight hours. They generally are very docile, lying in dead leaves where their colors help with concealment. If provoked it will usually crawl away to safety, and only when severely threatened will it actually strike out. A strike will seldom reach more than five to six inches. Prey species include a wide range of small mammals, lizards, frogs, and insects. Tennant points out that white-footed and harvest mice, native species in our fields and woodlands, are probably their principal food species. John Werler, in "Texas Snakes," claims that they love cicadas in the nymphal stage and that they may actually "gorge" on these soft-bodied insects. Anoles and geckos are also readily available and are additional prey species commonly taken.
Mating occurs in early spring, soon after the snakes emerge from hibernation. The female carries developing eggs inside her body all summer, and young are born (5-6 per litter) alive in late summer or early fall (August and September). However, the young copperheads, roughly nine inches long, are born in sacs, the last relicts of egghood. In half an hour, already poisonous to kill small prey, they will break free from their sheaths and strike out on their own.
I have found that copperheads are far more evident around my property during dry periods. Since I water my yard and garden, it tends to attract copperhead prey and the predators. During wetter period the snakes are more widely distributed and seldom seen. But always keep in mind that, whether it is dry or wet, copperheads can be present in our area much of the year. They are fascinating creatures and worthy of our respect!