The copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix) is a member of the pit viper subfamily. It is the one of the most numerous venomous snakes in North America and can be found throughout most of the central and eastern United States. There are five subspecies of copperheads, but all are similar in appearance, size and lethality. Depending upon region, copperheads may also be referred to as highland moccasins, death adders, chunk heads, pilot snakes or red snakes.
Copperheads grow to a maximum length of about three feet. Coloration varies from brown to pinkish tan in color with 10-18 distinct crossbands that are light tan to pale brown in the center and darker towards the edges. They do not have rattles on their tails like many other pit vipers.
Copperheads can usually be found in forested areas and are particularly common near rock outcroppings and ledges in mixed woodlands. Though primarily nocturnal during hot weather, copperheads are active during the day whenever the weather cools. During the winter months they can be found in dens often under ledges. These dens can be shared with other species of snakes, even larger vipers such as timber rattlesnakes.
Like most pit vipers, copperheads are ambush hunters and feed almost exclusively on rodents and frogs. They lie in wait using their camouflaged coloring to blend in with their surroundings and strike at unsuspecting prey that wanders too close. Rarely, copperheads will actively pursue insects such as caterpillars as well.
Most venomous snakes strongly prefer to avoid confrontations with animals that are too large for them to eat. Their venom is a precious commodity and they prefer not to waste it on anything that won’t become a meal. If threatened, a pit viper’s first reaction is usually to flee. If this is not possible, most vipers attempt to make their presence known to the intruder through either an audio display (a rattlesnake shaking its rattles) or a visual display (a cottonmouth opening its jaw to show its fangs). These actions are usually enough to convince a hiker (or deer) to choose another route.
However, the copperhead isn’t like most other vipers. Instead of making its presence known to an intruder, a copperhead that is unable to flee will usually stay motionless; using its camouflaged coloring to make itself nearly impossible to see on the forest floor. This often leads to hikers unknowingly stepping on the snake and provoking it to bite.
As common as copperhead bites are, they are usually not life-threatening. Many self-defense bites are “dry bites” in which little or no venom is injected. Even if the bite is venomous, the copperhead’s venom is considerably weaker than that of most vipers, and use of an antivenin is usually not required. However, fatalities can occur and immediate medical attention should be sought for any copperhead bite.
Copperheads are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young instead of laying eggs.
Copperheads are responsible for more snake bites each year than any other venomous snake in the United States.
NC State University & A&T State University Cooperative Extension