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The dangers of copperheads

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While I was pondering the topic for my next article, I came across three cases of bites from copperhead snakes, one fatal to a small dog who was protecting his kids, and thought some information might be helpful.

If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably seen a copperhead. Just the word alone strikes fear into our hearts. They are pit vipers, meaning they have triangular heads with small indentations, or pits between their eyes and nostrils that sense heat, thereby helping them locate their prey at night. Copperheads’ main diet is rodents, but they will also feast on small birds, lizards and frogs.

One of six venomous snakes in North Carolina, Copperheads account for more bites than any of the others because they are plentiful, widespread, and have a large range of habitats, including suburban areas, making contact with humans more likely. Their venom is milder than others, and although it is not usually fatal to humans, it is hemolytic, meaning it destroys blood cells, causing painful tissue damage.

If you leave a copperhead alone, it will leave you alone. It will only strike when it feels threatened. Our first instinct, when we see a copperhead, or, in fact, any snake, is to kill it. If you can resist that instinct, and it isn’t threatening anyone, try to let it slither away on its own. Snakes are important to our ecosystem, keeping our properties free of rodents that can get in your house more easily and can cause disease.

A better solution would be to keep your property free of woodpiles, brush piles and other clutter, where they like to hide. They are masters at camouflage. Refrain from leaving food outside, which could attract them. Just as we are taught to be aware of our surroundings to keep us safe from people who mean us harm, we should also be vigilant in our natural surroundings. Watch where you are walking in forests and farmlands and be extra careful when reaching into possible hiding spots while working outside. Remember, they will only strike if disturbed.

Identifying a copperhead can be tricky, as there are others, such as the corn snake, the northern water snake, eastern rat snake, and eastern milk snake, that have similar coloration. The most significant differences are seen on the head. It is triangular, and the pupils are vertical. You would also notice the pits on either side of the head. Since I doubt any of us would choose to get close enough to verify these features in the field, the best way to identify this reptile is to look for a brown hourglass design on a tan body, and they are the only kind of snake with these hourglass markings. The design may also appear to resemble a Hershey’s kiss. They grow to be an average of two to three feet in length.

Adults will breed in the spring and bear their babies in late summer to early fall, right about now. Copperheads give birth to live babies, not eggs, and can have up to 18 of them at a time. Baby copperheads possess the same hourglass pattern but are more grayish in color than adults and have a yellowish green tail tip for up to about a year after birth. They are venomous even then.

A copperhead bite will produce instant, severe pain followed by swelling and redness, and you may feel sick. On rare occasions, a person may have a fatal allergic reaction to the venom before the poison can do its damage. Protect your family and pets by cleaning up piles of wood, brush, metal, and anything else on your property where they might hide. Teach your family how to identify a copperhead and how to be aware. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Patricia Schoch is originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania but has lived in North Carolina for 30 years. A retired nurse, children’s book author, and freelance writer, she now resides in Wake Forest. Pat can be reached at patricsch@itsallwrite.net. Website: https://itsallwrite.net.


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