Don’t get the hoe! It’s actually bad to kill snakes
Anyone spending time outdoors during North Carolina’s warmer months knows to be watchful for snakes — copperhead snakes in particular. Copperheads are one of the six types of venomous snakes found in North Carolina, and the most prevalent venomous snake in this part of the state.
But with late summer comes a new worry to those on the snake watch: baby snakes.
When exactly are baby copperheads born? Are baby copperheads more dangerous than adults?
CuriousNC set out to get answers.
We consulted a scientist who has answered snake questions for us before: Jeff Beane, Herpetology Collection Manager at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh. We also spoke with a certified wildlife relocation expert, Talena Chavis of NC Snake Catcher (ncsnakecatcher.com) in Cary.
Are baby copperheads born in August?
Beane confirmed that most copperheads are born in late August or early September, but that a few may be born as early as mid-August or as late as early October.
“Weather, geography, region and other factors can influence the exact time of birth,” Beane said. “But usually the last few days of August and the first few of September are peak for copperheads.”
Chavis’ experience confirms that the birthing season is indeed upon us. She tells us that just in the past week, she has captured two pregnant — or gravid — copperheads. All of the snakes she captures are humanely relocated to an area where she has permission to release them.
Copperhead babies are born live, typically in litters of three to five, with three being more the average, Chavis said. And newly born copperheads have a green tail that darkens pretty quickly.
Is a baby copperhead bite more dangerous than an adult bite?
As for the question about whether a baby copperhead bite is more dangerous than an adult’s, Beane said the answer is “a little bit complicated.”
Beane said that young copperheads may be less likely to control or withhold the amount of venom they inject, but that they also don’t have as much venom as a mature snake.
When dealing with prey, a baby copperhead would need to inject as much venom into its prey as possible in order to assure that they kill it and eat it.
“Of course, a bite delivered to a human is a defensive bite and not a prey-seeking bite,” Beane said. “It is not advantageous for snakes to waste venom — it’s metabolically expensive to make, so they don’t want to bite anything other than prey items.”
For that reason, Beane said, a snake will often inject less venom — and sometimes none at all — in a defensive bite than it would into prey it is trying to kill.
But Beane said snakes don’t “reason it out” when deciding to bite or deciding how much venom to inject. It’s an instinctive response.
“Behavior such as injecting more venom into a feeding bite than into a defensive one is more likely stimulus-response behavior that has been selected for over the species’ evolutionary history,” Beane said.
Apart from control, there’s the issue of the concentration or amount of venom baby copperheads deliver versus an adult snake.
“A newborn copperhead’s venom may — or may not — be slightly more concentrated than an adult’s, but a larger copperhead has a lot more venom to inject, which would probably more than make up for any differences in chemical composition,” Beane told us.
“A larger copperhead also has more venom delivery capacity because its fangs are longer and more able to penetrate, for example, a sock or thick skin, than an newborn’s would be. And it can strike a greater distance and with more force and accuracy.”
Since a snake’s number one reason for biting is to kill and eat prey, snakes only bite people in an act of self-defense, Beane said.
“They would be unlikely to mistake something 100 times their size as a prey item,” Beane said.
“Most bites from copperheads on humans seem to be from adults,” Beane said. “I don’t hear much about people being bitten by newborns. Personally, if I had to choose being bitten by a newborn copperhead or an adult, I would choose a newborn because of the potentially much smaller quantity of venom.”
How can you avoid copperheads?
Beane said the best way to avoid snakes is to understand their habits and recognize that they may be encountered anywhere there is potential habitat.
(We learned from a previous CuriousNC story that Copperheads love pine straw or low-growing groundcover like ivy, and also dry stack walls, which are border walls that are essentially stacked pieces of slate without mortar — those crevices make great homes for prey).
“Get familiar with them and learn to appreciate them,” Beane said. “Common sense things like not putting your body parts into places you can’t see, not walking barefoot at night, not walking barefoot in thick vegetation, using a flashlight at night, not sticking your hands up underneath wood piles, watching what you are doing at all times, watching where you put your hands and feet will prevent the great majority of bites.”
Chavis, who said she averages about a half dozen snake calls per week, advises people to check out their yard before dogs or kids go out.
“The big thing I tell folks about copperheads is, they are not shy snakes,” Chavis said. “They are good at camouflaging themselves, but they are not shy. ... They hunt at night, so try to let the dogs out before dark, if you can, and wear your boots. We get bitten at night because we put on our little flip-flops and grab the trash and walk out, and that’s when we get tagged.”
That advice is more important than ever since this has been a particularly busy copperhead season, according to Chavis.
“It’s a big year for copperheads because of the unseasonably warm weather,” Chavis said. “It’s been really busy — there’s a bumper crop of copperheads. I call it the ‘copperhead apocalypse’ because I’m hearing from so many people who have never seen snakes in their yard.”
Copperheads typically have dark Hershey Kiss-shaped marks on their backs, but Chavis said it’s tricky to rely just on markings. (Venomous snakes also tend to have a more triangular shaped head.)
“The problem is the gradient of shading, and I’ve been seeing more this year with spots and freckling and some breakup in the Kiss,” Chavis said.
If you see a snake in your yard and you’re not sure if it’s venomous or not, Chavis offers a free snake ID service. Simply take a photo of the snake and text it to 919-867-0173 and she’ll get back to you and let you know what it is.
Should copperheads be killed or left alone?
That’s a simple one, for Beane.
“Leave them alone,” he said. “Admire them from a safe distance and leave them alone. Many bites and other injuries have occurred while people were attempting to kill snakes.
“No one was ever bitten by a snake while they were leaving it alone.”
If leaving it alone makes you nervous, you can always call The Snake Catcher.