“Red against black, safe for Mack. Red against yellow, can kill a fellow.”
Generations of children have been taught some version of this rhyme to help them remember the difference between a potentially deadly, venomous snake and other colorful but non-venomous snakes like Corn Snakes.
Corn Snakes have red and orange bands of color with dark spots on the ridge of their spines. These dark spots don’t extend down their sides.
Copperheads have pinkish tones in their scales, and they have spots on their spines.
Distinguishing Copperheads from harmless corn snakes depends on your ability to recognize patterns, not just color.
Before I get into more details on the differences between a corn snake and a copperhead snake, here is one thing you need to know first:
Corn snakes are non-venomous but copperhead snakes are venomous. However, the venom of the copperhead is not fatal and is less potent.
Differences Between Copperheads and Corn Snakes
For those rare occasions decisive action is necessary, here are five ways to distinguish potentially deadly Copperheads from friendly Corn Snakes.
Corn Snakes grow longer than Copperheads.
You may encounter Corn Snakes that are 24 to 72 inches (60 to 180 cm) long, while Copperheads range from 30 to 53 inches (76 to 135 cm).
Corn Snakes are heavier snakes than Copperheads.
An adult Corn Snake typically weighs around 33 ounces (935 grams). An adult Copperhead weighs 4 to 7 ounces (112 to 196 grams).
Both Corn Snakes and Copperheads live long enough that you may see the same snake in your backyard or along the trail again and again over a period of years.
Corn Snakes that survive to adulthood can live 23 years, while Copperheads can live 15 to 29 years.
Corn Snakes are oviparous. They lay eggs.
If you find snake eggs, they aren’t Copperheads, because Copperheads are viviparous. They give birth to live baby snakes.
Danger to People
Corn snakes aren’t venomous, but they will defend themselves when they feel threatened.
They can strike a person or animal as far as half their body length away in a swift, painful bite.
You are most likely to be bitten by a corn snake when you accidentally approach their nest at dusk or dawn. Corn Snake bites need to be treated to prevent infection, but they do not require anti-venom.
However, to know whether it was really a Corn Snake that bit you, you will need to go through the identification steps for Copperheads, listed below.
The Centers for Disease Control report that about 4,500 people a year are bitten by Copperheads in the United States.
More people in the United States are bitten by Copperheads than by any other poisonous snake, even Rattlesnakes.
Copper heads are poisonous, but their venom is not very potent and won’t be fatal.
Most bites occur when people accidentally step on them or, like my three-year-old brother, pick them up.
Bites from adult Copperheads are most common on the hands, arms, and feet. Victims tend to be young children and inebriated adults who pick them up.
A bite from a fully grown Copperhead will cause intense pain, swelling, nausea, and vomiting, and sometimes fainting.
These effects are worse in people who have consumed alcohol before being bitten by the snake.
Bites from baby Copperheads are very painful, but fewer than 1 in 10,000 people bitten by a just-hatched Copperhead will die from the poison.
Only infants, the elderly, and people who already have other serious health conditions are at risk of death from a copperhead bite.
Children, teens, and young adults may need anti-venom to limit pain and tissue damage.
A bite from an adult Copperhead is a different matter. Adults who are bitten by Copperheads typically miss two to six weeks of work.
If the bite is not treated with anti-venom in an ER, the affected limb may be swollen for months or years.
It’s not very difficult to tell the difference between an adult Corn Snake and an adult Copperhead.
Corn Snakes are larger and longer. If you are bitten by a snake that is 4 or 5 feet long it wasn’t a Copperhead. The difficulty comes with identifying baby Copperheads.
How Do You Identify Baby Copperheads
Baby Copperheads are relatively helpless in the wild except for their ability to bite.
This makes them especially aggressive when they are disturbed or threatened.
Newborn Copperheads do not, as some myths in circulation suggest, have more venom than adults. They have less.
But they have the ability to meter their venom to inject more into larger targets.
Unfortunately, you and your family members are larger targets, as are your dogs and sometimes your cats.
Here are seven ways to tell the difference between baby Copperheads and other snakes.
Look for an hourglass pattern
Baby Copperheads have pale, pinkish skin and a copper-colored head, which is how they get their name.
They also have dark, brown markings that look like hourglasses. They keep these markings their entire lives.
The hourglass pattern on a Copperhead is thin at the ridge of its spine and widens around the sides of its body.
When you are looking down at a Copperhead, this pattern looks like hourglasses. When you are looking at the side of a Copperhead, it looks like a row of Hershey’s kisses.
Look for a bright yellow or green tip on the tail
Young Copperheads have brightly colored yellow or green tips on their tails.
They expose just the tip of their tails to easy view while keeping the rest of their bodies hidden, ready to strike.
The tip of their tails serves as a lure for the animals they eat.
When a Copperhead is about a year old, the tip of its tail will turn black or dark brown.
Look for pits on the sides of the Copperhead’s face
Copperheads, like other pit vipers, have sensors on both sides of the faces between their eyes and their nostrils.
These facial pits help them detect food animals by their heat signature.
Copperheads and other snakes have poor vision. They cannot detect their prey by looking for motion.
They detect other animals—including humans—by infrared detection.
You have to get very close to a baby Copperhead to see its facial pits. If you can see the pits on the side of a baby Copperhead’s face, you are too close for safety.
Look for slitted pupils
Copperheads don’t have round pupils. Their pupils look like slits running up and down their eyes that look something like the pupils in the eyes of a cat.
Most non-venomous snakes have round pupils.
Most Copperheads have golden eyes with a thin, black vertical slit. You are better off observing them in a photograph than in person.
Look for a short but thick body type
Baby Copperheads may be only 7 inches (17 to 18 cm) long after they are born, but as they find prey to eat, they thicken up before they grow longer.
An adult Copperhead that is 24 inches (60 cm) long will be about as thick as the circle made when you touch your thumb and forefinger together.
But do not measure the thickness of an adult Copperhead’s body with this method.
Look for Keeled Scales
Copperheads, like most poisonous snakes, have keeled scales. These are triangular scales that form a ridge in the middle.
These scales give the snake’s body a rough texture.
If you are holding a snake and can feel a rough texture to its scales, you need to take evasive measures immediately.
Look for Scutes Behind the Vent
Snakes relieve themselves of waste and also have sex through an orifice called a vent.
They have long lines of scales on their underbellies called scutes. In non-venomous snakes, the line of scutes will split in two at the vent, looking something like a zipper.
In Copperheads and other venomous snakes, the scutes will continue in a single straight line behind the vent.
Although this is a sure-fire way to identify a baby Copperhead, you should leave it to the experts.
Other Snakes That Are Easily Confused with Copperheads
There are over 130 species of snakes in North America. There are many snakes that are also confused with Copperheads.
Here is a list.
Eastern Hognoses have a distinctive upturned snout. They come in many different colors but not with the uniform hourglass pattern found in Copperheads.
Juvenile Eastern Rat Snakes are gray and black. They have large spots over their spines, but not in an hourglass pattern like Copperheads.
Juvenile Black Racers are hard to distinguish from Juvenile Eastern Rat Snakes. They have a darker gray base, unlike the pinkish base of a Copperhead’s scale, and brownish spots, also not in an hourglass formation.
Northern Water Snakes may have broken bands of color. Their bands get narrower on the sides instead of wider
Juvenile Mole King Snakes have tan or gray base color with reddish-brown spots on their spines. Adult Mole King Snakes are almost completely brown.
Now that you know how to identify Copperheads, here’s how to keep them out of your backyard.
How to Safely Remove a Copperhead from Your Yard
Although my mother might disagree, it’s not always necessary to kill a Copperhead to keep it out of your yard.
If the Copperhead is near the edge of your yard, it most likely will slither away without any need of intervention from you.
All you need to do is to make sure it does not find its way to a place where children or pets play or adults gather on the deck.
Chances are that the Copperhead will just be passing through. Most snakes will just be passing through.
However, if it needs to be moved, or you feel more comfortable knowing the snake isn’t near your yard follow the steps below.
But if the Copperhead needs to be moved, or you would just feel more comfortable if it was moved, here is what to do.
Use a Hook
If you live where Copperheads or other venomous snakes are common, it’s good to invest in a snake hook.
Any snake hook needs to be at least 3 feet (about a meter) long so you don’t have to get too close to the snake.
To remove a baby Copperhead, gently place the pointed end underneath the baby snake.
Lift the snake quickly so it is unable to slither away. You can make the snake want to hold on to the hook by gently vibrating it.
Then place the snake in a large bucket with a secure lid and move it to a more desirable location.
If the snake keeps getting off the hook, you may have to use a grab stick.
Or you may have to use a grab (clamp) stick
Grab sticks, also known as clamp sticks, are very effective for holding snakes.
Grab sticks work the same way trash grabbers work, only they have a more snake-friendly clamp. The handle is attached to a pulley that is attached to the clamp.
To use a grab stick:
- Slide the lower arm of the clamp under the center of the Copperhead’s body.
- Close the clamp around the snake slowly but firmly.
- Don’t squeeze the clamp too fast or too hard, to avoid breaking the snake’s ribs or back.
- Once you have secured the Copperhead, you can put in a bucket with a secure lid for safe relocation.
What to do if you don’t have a hook or a grab stick
There may be times you want to relocate a Copperhead when you don’t have a snake hook or a grab stick.
One option is to scoop up the snake with a shovel and put it in a garbage can. Close the lid quickly and firmly.
Then release the snake, protecting yourself with the shovel, until you tip over the garbage can (pointed away from you) to let the Copperhead out.
You can also sweep a Copperhead into a garbage can with an attached flip lid with a broom. Keep 3 feet (1 meter) distance between you and the snake at all times.
Signs a Copperhead is about to bite
Anytime a Copperhead becomes stressed, it may bite.
Here are some signs a Copperhead is feeling threatened:
- The Copperhead has coiled itself up with its head in the middle of the coil.
- The Copperhead repeatedly tries to slither away.
- The Copperhead is hissing or breathing through its mouth.
- The Copperhead is musking, releasing a foul-smelling liquid.
Any or all of these behaviors are warning signs the snake is about to bite. Give it time to calm down before attempting to move it.
Keeping Copperheads Out of Your Yard
There is an easy way to keep Copperheads from ever coming into your yard at all:
Keep your grass mowed.
Snakes don’t like to be seen. They prefer to move through tall grass or underbrush without detection.
If you just keep up with your mowing, you are far less likely to ever encounter a Copperhead or any other snake in your yard.
To make your yard snake-proof:
- Fill in any holes or cracks in the foundation of your house where snakes could find shelter.
- Rake leaves and shred them for composting. Don’t just leave them in a pile.
- Store your firewood in a rack at least 2 feet (60 cm) off the ground.
- Keep underbrush from growing around shrubs. Use mulch, not pine straw or hay for weed control and moisture retention.
You can also surround your yard with snake fencing, but be forewarned that snake fences aren’t foolproof.
Don’t use traps, since they are inhumane, and when it is time to empty the trap, you will have a very upset snake.
Copperhead bites usually aren’t fatal, although they are painful. They can take weeks or months of treatment for recovery.
Simple measures that keep Copperheads in a habitat other than your yard are best.
Those protective measures also keep Corn Snakes out of your yard, of course.
But it is better to discourage all kinds of snakes from entering your yard if there is a risk of killing a non-venous snake out of fear.
Let Corn Snakes and Copperheads perform their roles in maintaining the ecological balance in habitats that are safe for them.
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