Venomous or harmless? How to tell the difference between Carolina snakes
The weather in the Triangle the past week has been pretty great for mid-June: mild temps, low humidity, just enough rain to keep the gardens watered but not so much that people are losing their minds.
But the downfall to this weather, at least according to all the thousands of armchair herpetologists on social media, is that it has made snakes more active.
Is that a real thing, though? Are snakes really more active when it’s cooler and damper in summer months?
It’s not an easy yes or no answer, according to Jeff Beane, Herpetology Collection Manager at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh.
There are many species of snakes, and each species has different habits — different likes and dislikes, Beane said. Some like wet, rainy weather; some do not. Some like warmer weather, some like cooler weather. Some are nocturnal, some rarely move at night.
But what about North Carolina’s Official Snake of Summer: the dreaded copperhead.
Copperhead snakes, the most prolific of the six venomous snakes found in North Carolina, prefer warm, humid weather, said Beane.
“They are largely nocturnal in hot weather and more likely to be diurnal (active during the day) in cooler weather,” Beane said. “They don’t typically like to move around much in rainy weather, but they will occasionally — especially on warm, rainy nights. A period of rain after a long, dry spell might get them moving around because it might be the first opportunity they have had to get a drink of water or shed their skin (which is more difficult for them to do in very dry weather) in a while.”
But, Beane said, when it starts to heat up after some cooler weather, copperheads will come out more.
“A warm, sunny day after a long period of unseasonably cool, rainy weather might bring them out during the day because it might be the first opportunity they have had to bask in the sun in a while,” he said. “A relatively cool, sunny day, or a partly cloudy day, would be a good time to see a copperhead basking in an area exposed, or partially exposed, to the sun. A cool, cloudy or rainy day this time of year would be a good time to find one under cover — under a sheltering object like a sheet of tin, plywood board, woodpile, etc.”
So basically, there’s always a chance you could see a copperhead somewhere. (Note: copperheads are pretty easy to identify because they have a Hershey Kiss-shaped design on their sides.)
“I would say that unseasonably cool, rainy weather is not preferred by copperheads, but you might be more likely to see one basking during the day on a relatively cool, sunny day, like today, or to find one under a sheltering object on a cool, rainy day,” Beane continued. “Also, when the weather is pleasant for people, then people are more likely to spend time outside, which greatly increases their potential for seeing snakes.”
Copperhead activity seems ‘about normal’
Joshua Payne with Southern Wildlife and Land Management in Raleigh, a company specializing in humane wildlife removal, says he has captured about 40 to 45 copperheads this spring, and that snake activity seems about normal.
So far, he said, it’s not as bad as last year.
“Last year was very active because of the cicadas and their big hatch,” Payne said. “You might find four or five copperheads at the bottom of a tree waiting for them to emerge. They love those things.”
Copperheads are what Payne calls “ambush snakes,” meaning they’ll “sit and wait in the shadows for something to come by and they’ll strike.” That’s why dogs get bitten so often, and why people doing yard work are bitten.
“Black snakes will try to get away from you,” Payne said. “But if a copperhead finds his spot, that’s his spot.”
Be especially careful, Payne said, when working around pine straw or low-growing groundcover like ivy, or around dry stack walls (border walls that are essentially stacked pieces of slate without mortar, which make great homes for amphibians).
For some reason, Payne said copperhead concentration seems to be “more dense” in Cary.
Payne said habitat management is the number one way to keep copperheads away. Take away the things they love — pine straw; lush, low-growing groundcover; dry stack walls — and your odds of seeing them go way down.
Payne said he has only been bitten by a copperhead once, and that was when he was 10 years old. He caught the snake, not knowing what it was, and took it into the house to show his mother. The snake bit him right in front of her, and he spent a couple of days in the hospital.
Many people kill copperhead snakes on sight, but Southern Wildlife relocates the creatures they capture. Payne said he takes the snakes and possums he catches to a spot near Jordan Lake, to family-owned game land that is hundreds of acres large and far away from homes and neighborhoods.
Payne also notes that copperheads do not lay eggs, they give birth to live young in late summer, and the snakes are fully formed and read to go.
So if you’re doing yard work or walking the dog in late summer and happen upon one of those little critters, you should also be ready to go.