What was that hubbub? As an 11 year old I ran to our garage, only to see that half the neighborhood's little kids and teenagers were milling about at the entrance to it. I guess someone had spotted this item of intense fascination go in it on a visit and word quickly went down the grapevine.
Their interest was piqued by a snake that had gotten into the garage and was hiding under the International Harvester riding lawnmower. Being a brave, or foolish lad, I stuck my head down under the yellow tractor and practically eye-balled the thing - rounded pupil to rounded pupil. To be honest about it, the 3 foot snake didn't look all that deadly. But yep, just about everyone was convinced it was a dangerous copperhead. I was to later find out snakes like coppers, rattlers and cottonmouths have elliptical pupils, not rounded ones like most harmless snakes in the U.S. do. An exception would be, a fortunately docile and shy species called a coral snake, that has neurotoxic venom.
Anyway, back to the garage intruder, who was probably searching for mice.
Some older kid finally killed it. A couple of us boys, being really curious if this limp horror was truly the dreaded serpent most everyone believed it to be, took it around the neighborhood to find out for sure. I think the second adult man we showed it to said he didn't think it was. Turned out the innocent creature was a beautifully-colored harmless corn snake. To cut to the chase here with this opener, that incident started me on a search for the truth about these generally feared and hated animals. Shoot, the lady next door would literally faint if she even saw a picture of a snake. Anyhow, that was the day that began my intense interest in them, and it was a long learning.
Folks, this article is written in a Carolina Critters and Other Animals of the South way, or, to be more accurate, a Carolinian's Archives style. And I'll add this too before you read any further: This fellow likes snakes and feels strongly they have as much right to live on this spinning sphere as much as any other animal.
The following read will contain some facts on Agkistrodon contotrix, which is obviously the creature's scientific name, but the majority of the text will be several anecdotes- experiences with them through my life, and one story by George about the picture that starts off the article, and another one by a friend named Carey. I've seen some sources that state there are three sub-species but others that say there are five. A great recent publication, called "Snakes of the southeast" by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas say there are three so that's probably the correct answer.
To start off, in the early 70s, I was a boy scout in summer camp on Lake Norman, NC. Three of us decided one day to walk down a trail to the commissary store. As we walked down the path, which had thick undergrowth on both sides of it, I suddenly noticed the middle of a very big copperhead laying in our way. The boy in front of me got lucky because he was in mid-step, about to place his foot right on the snake, when quickly, I grabbed his collar and pulled him back. And by the way, that fellow scout thanked me with a sincerity that has stayed in my memory all the many years since that incident.
Anyway, the ol' fellow with the hourglass markings went into a defensive posture when he suddenly became aware of these tall furless bipeds - no doubt, he'd never encountered such giants before. The snake was in a bad position, for if he'd turned tail and tried to escape into the thickets, he would have left his rear open going into the thick underbrush, so he did the only thing he could.
Two of us watched him while another boy ran off to get a counselor. The counselor finally come huffing and puffing to the scene, carrying some sharp-bladed instrument, and what then took place was an unforgettable experience. That old copperhead fought hard for his life, successfully dodging the first three or four swings the older boy made, aiming at his head. But on the forth or fifth attempt he caught the snake on the neck and it was all over but for the death contractions.
The counselor wanted the body, but I claimed first rights as having spotted him first. I skinned and salted the snake and he turned out to be close to four and half feet long, as big as these species get. Kept it for a long time, too, until it got lost in a move. And to finish-up this first anecdote, on reflection over the years, I began to feel bad about its fate. He meant no one any harm, and having a watched him for a while like I did, the realization came that the aged and startled old boy, wasn't purely acting on instinct. There was intelligence in those eyes.
Now to some interesting facts about these pit vipers. There will be a link to a site with more factoids for any reader desiring them. According to this source I'm looking at right now, a person in the U.S. is far more likely to be killed by a lightening bolt than by a venomous snake bite. Maybe that's because we have hospitals nearly everywhere, but in the copper's case that doesn't seem to be the reason. The snakes, as a rule, just don't deliver that strong a bite with their hemotoxic venom. Apparently, according to several sources, in up to 40% of defensive strikes they don't even release venom. Not that a bite from them is to be taken lightly. Although fatalities are extremely rare, they do have the potential to put a painful hurt and localized swelling on someone. Their fangs and sacs are simply Mother Nature's way for them to secure prey.
Snake-handling churches. Maybe the Holy Ghost does come down and protect those sipping strychnine and handling pit vipers. To be honest about it, I don't know. But I do know this, after catch-and-releasing perhaps a dozen southeastern species over the years, that once they sense no more threat, they can be like babes-in-arms. Most of these creatures last desire is to bite a human. Juveniles, however, for obvious reasons, can be more likely to. If I ever see the faithful pick-up fistfuls of juvenile coppers and rattlers without being bitten, perhaps I'll be more certain about the preternatural protection. And for some reason, North Carolina has the highest number of bites recorded yearly. I once saw something on TV about a snake-handling member who got tagged on a finger by either a copper or rattler. But, because of his religious beliefs, he didn't go get medical help and actually died. Very sad, but perhaps it shows that one shouldn't try picking one up unless an expert.
As far as eating, copperheads seem to be equal opportunity employers when it comes to prey, much more so than many other venomous species. They'll go after, or lay long in wait, for frogs, lizards, other snakes and even big insects. But their main victims are small rodents, particularly rats and mice. They're probably as important to rodent control as the now protected hawks are, but don't count on too many state legislators giving them any protection as it wouldn't be popular with a lot of their constitutes. However, as guest contributor Phyllis Burns points out in the comments, rattlesnakes, at least, are protected by law in Nevada.
Now on relating this, George mentioned that it was fortunate his son's legs were cold from wading in the lake's chilly water, considering that pit vipers have those two heat sensors on top of their heads, between the eyes. Possibly so. However, here's something interesting that just happened to me in September of 2015: Coming home late one night, I suddenly noticed a big copperhead stretched out in the road, apparently enjoying the remaining heat of it. Excited, I put the headlights on the animal, and cautiously got up rather close behind him. The old fellow didn't make a move. He was headed for a wooded area, so to save him from getting squashed, I tapped his tail with the end of an umbrella, and dear reader, you should have seen that chap take off for the forest lickity-split! He wanted nothing to do with me and my Homebasix and that's for sure!
Besides humankind, obviously, the subject at hand does have its share of predators, especially the young that are preyed on by mid-sized animals that know how to avoid their bites or are willing to take their chances on one with a mildly venomous delivery. King snakes are probably their greatest threats, being immune, but I saw where opossums may have some kind of immunity, too, and possibly even pigs and wild boar. I'm not sure about those last three but it would seem practical for them to be so, in a sense, that is. Especially with the opossums, being one of, if not the, oldest mammal in America which would have given them a long time to develop some immunity. Phyllis Doyle Burns also tells us in the comments of an amazing experience she had watching a hawk take a rattlesnake in Nevada. Maybe that goes for hawks and owls in the copperhead's case too?
The snakes barely go down into the Florida panhandle and don't roam the Florida peninsular or the southern most parts of Georgia according to the range maps. Maybe a herpetologist or other expert can enlighten us on why this is in the comments someday. However, Mr. Randy Godwin in the first post on the article, posits an interesting possibility as to why this could be. In the colder regions they inhabit, copperheads will sometimes hibernate in communal dens with others of their species or even timber rattlers. They also seem to have mostly gone nocturnal, at least in my area, in their main activities, hiding or holing up during the day..
For some reason, which the media says is because of a mild winter, this year of 2016 has seen an increase in copperhead bites and snake activity in general, at least in N.C.. Thinking on it though, a mild winter would have given them the possibility of getting something to eat during hibernation; thus, a cold winter, one might assume, would make them hungrier and more mobile come the warm months? Just a speculation of mine, of course.
Bites could be seriously reduced if folks would just watch where they're walking in the woods, look over fallen trees before stepping over them, don't stick hands into things like root holes, or into rocky crevices when out climbing. Certainly there are many other precautions one could take, like having a flashlight when strolling about at night where they're known to be. But above all, be careful taking logs off of wood piles, and especially don't stick a hand into the bottom of one, as this is one of the most frequent spots they like to take cover or make temporary homes, of a sort.
That these log piles can be particularly so, I can attest to that fact from personal experience. When trying to get my reptile study merit badge as a boy scout, I asked a friend of the family to help me catch a copperhead. The friend's name was Black Sam and he was a tall and beefy, sixty-something African American who was friends with my father. He also worked as a groundskeeper on a lodge in the Uwharrie National Forest, which is in the middle part of North Carolina.
We drove there and Sam knew exactly where to find one. He went right to a rotten log pile and started throwing the crumbly logs off one at time. Sure enough, at the bottom, a surprised small-sized copper stuck its head up through the sawdust. I kept that snake in a heavy-wired chicken cage for while too, until the old man said it had to go. He supposedly gave it to a nature museum but probably dispatched it. I once saw dad almost dislocate his shoulder picking up a massive rock to smash a little garter snake to smithereens is why the latter possibility
is most likely what happened to my prized fellow. Mom always kept a "serpent hoe" when out gardening too, no doubt dispatching dozens of little green snakes, not to mention the smaller ring-necked and worm snakes about.
Carey took the above photo in NW Georgia back in the '70s. He kept it all these years as an excellent example of how well copperheads can camouflage themselves. This is definitely the kind of ground cover to poke around in with an implement before walking through it in the deep woods. Carey points out that two subspecies overlap in that region: the southern and northern. This is a southern one, which may not have the usual prominent hourglass markings of the northern subspecies. He also said the snake measured about 3 feet. Only the mid-part is visible here and it took me a minute or two to spot it - incredible when I thought about it. See how long it takes you - which will hopefully be a lot quicker!
And to finish the article, I wouldn't blame anyone from sending off a pit viper hanging around grandma's garden or wood pile, and certainly not one found in a backyard where children play. But I do hope snake haters would at least not purposely run over them in the road in rural areas, and above all, not arbitrarily kill them out in nature while fishing or hunting or whatever one might be doing. There can be no doubts they play an important role in keeping rodent populations in balance, if for no other reason to let them go their way out in the wild. And it wasn't snakes that almost took out half the world's human-beings in the mid-1300s, but the fleas on the rats that did; and Europe, which was hit particularly hard by the Black Death, was rather bereft of rat eating snakes.
Here are two links. The first one is to a great article, with lots of personal photos, by Randy Godwin on Timber Rattlers, and the other one is to a pretty good site with more detailed facts concerning copperheads.