Unbeknownst to most residents of the Washington area, the region’s only venomous snake is multiplying this month.
In these weeks, the one-third to one-half of copperhead females who became pregnant this year are giving birth to live young, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources ecologist Scott Smith.
Each mother gives birth to eight to 10 babies at once. Only 10 to 25 percent of those baby snakes will live through the winter to reach adulthood — so for now, the copperhead population is much higher than usual.
And don’t assume that all those babies are any less dangerous than their full-grown pit viper parents.
Smith explained that baby snakes lack muscle control. That’s bad news for any human who happens to be bitten by a baby copperhead. When an adult copperhead bites, he releases only the amount of venom necessary to incapacitate his ordinary prey, small mammals like mice and voles. If a baby happens to latch on to your ankle, he’ll give you all the venom he’s got.
“The youngsters might blast out everything they have,” Smith said. “It could be as bad as an adult copperhead’s bite.”
Copperhead bites are dangerous, but rarely fatal.
According to state officials and news reports, bites have been reported this year in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Frederick, Harford and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland. Terrestrial wildlife biologist Susan Watson said that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries does not keep track of snake bites in the state. But a 3-year-old in Arlington was bitten by a copperhead in May, according to news reports.
“If you think about it, that’s really not many, given how many people are living in close proximity to these animals,” Smith said.
To stay safe, Smith recommends keeping lawns mowed so that snakes can’t hide in long grass, and avoiding creating piles of leaves, wood or trash where snakes might lurk unseen. Children should be prevented from playing in such piles, he said.
Watson said that copperheads won’t attack unless provoked. “You pretty much have to touch them in some way to get them to bite,” she said. “Don’t put your hands or feet where you can’t see.”
That means using a long-handled tool to move mulch when gardening, and parting high grass with a walking stick when hiking.
“Poke around before you step,” Watson advised.
Citizens can keep an eye out for the snakes’ dark bands and their namesake head colors, but don’t expect to see one of the nocturnal snakes before they all retreat into hibernation by the end of October.
“The chances of someone actually seeing a copperhead are really low,” Smith said. “I’m going to guess that Marylanders pass by copperheads in some parts of the state daily and don’t even know it.”