Conservation Corner

Captivated by Copperheads

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

August is the perfect month to say happy birthday to a copperhead. Copperheads are one of the few snake species in Missouri that are venomous. We call them venomous rather than poisonous since snakes can inject the harmful substance when they bite. Poisons are substances which are either eaten or drank.

Despite the scary idea of copperheads being venomous, they are quite shy and not usually aggressive. That’s a good thing, since copperheads are the most common venomous snake you’ll find in Missouri. They often live around here in parks, wooded areas, along streams, or maybe even your backyard.

You can identify a copperhead most easily by its coloration: grayish-brown to pinkish-tan, with hourglass-shaped crossbands of dark gray, brown, or reddish-brown. The crossbands look a little like Hershey’s kisses. Copperheads also have pupils that are vertical slits, like a cat’s eyes.

Just like your pet cat, a copperhead will gladly eat a mouse if it can get ahold of one. They also feed on lizards, frogs, small birds, insects (especially cicadas), and sometimes even other snakes. Young copperheads use their yellow tail as a lure to attract small frogs or lizards.

One thing that is not on their menu, though, is people! Copperheads have no desire to attack humans and will only do so if cornered, threatened, or startled. It takes a lot to produce their venom, which they use to immobilize the things they do eat. The last thing a snake wants is to waste a valuable dose of it on a human who is way too big to get down their mouth!

The best way to avoid a snake bite is to leave the snake alone and give it plenty of room to escape. After all, which would you rather do—fight a giant or run away? If hiking in wooded or brushy areas, always wear a sturdy pair of shoes or boots in case you happen to step on a snake accidentally. If you have an outside woodpile for the fireplace, always wear heavy leather gloves when reaching into it because sometimes snakes feels safe hiding there.

Young copperheads are born in August through early October, so the babies are entering the world this month! Copperhead mothers produce young only every other year.

If we give copperheads some respect, they’ll give us a hand controlling pesky critters like mice, which can cause us a lot more trouble than the snakes do. If you see a copperhead this month, don’t forget to say happy birthday. Just be sure to say it from a distance!

For more information please visit MDC.mo.gov