Temperatures are heating up, and snakes are out. One venomous snake is exceptionally well-hidden in our yards and gardens: the copperhead.
The ambush hunter usually remains motionless for long periods, making it even harder to notice when strolling through the yard or working in the garden. And if you get too close, the snake can feel threatened and strike without warning.
Their bite usually requires medical attention, sometimes with antivenom treatments.
Copperheads in your backyard
Copperheads thrive across much of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, although climate models suggest that rising global temperatures could be pushing populations as far north as Michigan and New England by 2050.
“[M]ost people are intolerant of any snake and kill them regardless if they’re venomous or not. However, copperheads, if left alone, are tolerant to some habitat disturbance and can thrive in some urban areas. I have them in my backyard,” J.D. Kleopfer, a herpetologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, wrote to The Washington Post.
Yards near wooded lots have the best chance of harboring copperheads, but copperheads thrive in many suburban and urban settings, so be mindful when walking or working outside.
The mating season for copperheads occurs during spring, April through June, and they give birth in late summer. A fall mating season can also occur, often in September.
Copperheads give birth to live young, and baby copperheads are born with bright yellow tips on their tails. The yellow end of their tail is thought to attract small prey to the snake. Baby copperheads can envenomate and are particularly dangerous, because they are hard to see, given their small size.
“Contrary to popular belief, babies are born with the ability to control how much venom they deliver. Because they possess less venom than adults, their bites tend to be less significant," said Spencer Greene, director of toxicology at HCA Houston Healthcare-Kingwood in Texas. "That said, a bite from a pit viper of any age can be mild, moderate, or severe.”
If you do see a copperhead, leave it alone or call a professional to relocate the snake to a safer place. Do not try to kill the snake, because you increase your chance of being bitten.
Mark Khosravi belongs to a team called K2C Wildlife Encounters, which catches and relocates troublesome wildlife near homes and businesses. Since 2021, the team has captured and relocated more than 50 copperheads in the Northern Virginia area. Relocations generally occur less than a mile from where they were captured, in similar habitat, but not near homes and businesses.
Sometimes copperheads are so well hidden that even professionals have trouble locating them.
“As a professional, everyone expects you to spot copperheads right away. I can’t lie to people and say I see the snake and then walk in the direction they are pointing. That’s how you get bit. So I let the ego go and take my time, and I always assume there might be more than one,” Khosravi said.
Treating copperhead bites
As an emergency physician, Greene has treated more than 70 copperhead bite victims last year. He expects the number to increase this year.
“Almost all envenomations should be treated with antivenom,” Greene said. “But unfortunately, the biggest problem most of my colleagues and I see when it comes to copperheads is that they are minimized by physicians who just don’t know much about snakebites.”
An average copperhead victim gets between six and ten vials of antivenom, but treatments vary depending on the bite, Greene said.
If left untreated, a bite can cause significant issues.
In one of Greene’s former cases, he met an avid triathlete in her 30s many weeks after she received a copperhead bite on the foot. Unfortunately, she never received antivenom after the bite, and by the time Greene saw her, it was too late.
“She can’t stand for long periods of time without getting pain and swelling. She can’t run, and she absolutely can’t compete. Her bite mismanagement severely impacted her life,” Greene wrote to The Post.
First steps after a copperhead bite
Greene outlined steps to follow after receiving a venomous snake bite:
1. Arrange to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. That may mean calling a friend or 911. Call 911 for any severe symptoms, and do not drive yourself.
2. Remove any constrictive clothing and jewelry.
3. Elevate the affected extremity. Do not place the affected extremity below heart level.
4. Take a picture of the snake if you can do it safely. Do not bring the snake, whether dead or alive. Deceased snakes can still envenomate.
5. Do not do any of the following: tourniquets, lymphatic bandage, pressure immobilization, cut and suck, extraction device, electrical stimulation, or packing the extremity in ice.
Minimizing copperhead threats near your home
Snakes will seek out areas with appropriate shelter, food and water. Here are ways to make your property less appealing to copperheads, according to Kimberly Wyatt, assistant professor of biology at Good Samaritan College in Ohio:
- Maintain a neat yard by trimming your lawn, clearing excessive vegetation, and picking up objects (including toys) and debris that may provide cover.
- Set woodpiles at the far end of your yard and keep shrubbery trimmed. Most snake bites occur when people do not see the snake — pay close attention to your surroundings when doing yard work.
- Remove or relocate bird feeders away from your home, and feed pets indoors to prevent attracting rodents, a food source for copperheads.
- Eliminate sources of standing water, and limit excessive watering.
- If you see a copperhead, give it space. Attempting to kill a snake increases your risk of being bitten. Instead, a spray from a garden hose will encourage it to leave.
Keep an eye out for copperheads, big and small, when outside. If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone. Copperheads are not aggressive snakes.