Some Copperhead Observations in Kentucky.

 

 

     As Phil Peak and I make our way across Kentucky gathering herpetological data one of the snakes we most frequently encounter is the copperhead. Of the 5,541 live snakes we recorded between January 1, 2003 and March 21, 2011, 714 (7.76%) were copperheads. Copperheads are always one of the five most frequently observed snakes annually, and there have been years when they have been recorded more often than any other snake during the season. Even though we do not ever set out to find copperheads they turn up most everywhere that we search for snakes. I remember one year when we found at least 238 of them and it is not uncommon for us to see over 150 during an average year even if we focus many of our searches in areas where copperheads are not the target species. Even though they are a common snake that we find in great numbers, there is always a sense of excitement when one is discovered. I do not know if this is because they are venomous, beautiful, fascinating, or what, but the fact remains that we really enjoy seeing each and every live copperhead that we find and we never tire of uncovering the next one.

     It has been our observation that the activity patterns of copperheads vary across Kentucky to some degree. Conditions suitable for copperhead activity arrive earlier in the west than they do in the eastern mountainous regions for example. No matter what region of Kentucky you are in, copperheads are not the first snakes to permanently emerge under normal conditions. We usually see garter snakes, Dekay’s snakes, earth snakes, worm snakes, king snakes, queen snakes and many water snake species weeks before we are able to locate copperheads. An exception might be a known den site in the mountains where copperheads would come out to bask on warm days early in the year and then retreat back into their winter quarters and not permanently emerge for the season. A graph of our copperhead observations follows.

 

 

     It has been our observation where we search for snakes that copperheads emerge in April. Many of the specimens that we see in April are covered with mud or dirt, which gives us the impression that they have just emerged from where they over-wintered. These dirt-covered copperheads are most often found under artificial cover (AC) where they are basking and soaking up extra heat. During these times they are often preparing for ecdysis, which we can detect due to their cloudy eyes and dull appearances.

     We have noted courtship in April on trips to west Kentucky, but as you move eastward this activity often will occur in May.

 

This pair of copperheads was discovered courting under a stack of metal on a sunny April day in western Kentucky.

 

     Copperheads are heat-loving snakes. During the warmer months many snake species become more difficult to locate under metal and boards, but fair numbers of copperheads can still be located under AC in these conditions. Whether they are digesting meals in June and July or gestating babies in July and August, we continue to locate copperheads with AC during hot and dry conditions. The warmer months also allow for copperheads to be located active in the evening hours. Cruising roads during the evening hours is an effective search method during this time of the year.

 

The easiest way to search for copperheads is to drive around on warm summer nights. They are one of the most frequently observed snakes that we see on the roads. In fact, there are nights when no other species are observed but we still find 6-12 copperheads.

 

     It should be mentioned that roads are very dangerous places to search for snakes and that great care should be taken when snakes are found on the road. When many people road-cruise for snakes they drive at a slower speed. Other drivers do not expect this and become easily frustrated. There are many turns in some roads as well as hills that other drivers are unable to see around or through. If you are driving slow or stopped in the middle of the road you and everyone in and around the vehicle is in danger of being run over and killed. Never forget this and always remain mindful of what is going on around you. When a snake is found on the road the driver should pull over as soon as it is safe. A passenger should get out and the driver should then get the car off the road where it can be seen by traffic coming from all directions. When we are in the middle of nowhere and it is safe we will sometimes take a quick picture of a snake on the road. We also carry a bucket and tongs so that a snake found on a road with traffic can be quickly secured and moved to a safe location while we get our GPS waypoints and take pictures. We do not spend a lot of time standing in the middle of the road looking at a snake. In fact, it is possible to draw the attention of law enforcement when doing so and some places have laws in place to protect the public from people who want to park their car in the middle of a road. When we road-cruise we do not want to waste our time talking to police officers while all the snakes are crawling around all over the place. We have found that we find the most snakes when we get our vehicle off the road, practice safety, get the data and pictures that we need, and then move on as quickly as possible.

 

Many of the copperheads we find road cruising on warm summer nights are out searching for food. It is not uncommon to find copperheads swallowing mice and other prey items during the active feeding season.

 

     By early August we find copperheads that are swollen to such an extent that there is no doubt that they are gravid. Groups of copperheads preparing to give birth can be found under properly deployed pieces of AC. Gravid copperheads require heat to gestate their young, and as a result they often move to open areas where the rays of the sun penetrate to the surface of the ground. As a result, we regularly find groups of expecting mothers underneath large objects that are in open and often grassy areas. Gravid female copperheads do not like being disturbed as they are preparing to give birth. When they are discovered they feel very threatened and they will bite to defend themselves and their developing babies from threats, so extra caution should be exercised in these circumstances.

 

Four gravid copperheads found late in the summer under a board in a grassy field.

 

     We commonly observe females with their recently born litters of young in late August and early September. We have seen many lone females with their broods of 5-7 babies. We have also recorded groups of females with large numbers of babies but in these instances it is difficult to determine individual brood numbers. On the rare occasion we have encountered a small female with 2 or 3 babies.

 

A mother and five of her young. Only the head of the 5th baby is visible protruding from under a leaf to the left of the baby just above the mothers head. This picture was taken just as we lifted a wooden board. Large pieces of metal and wooden boards that are properly deployed benefit copperheads by providing the conditions that these snakes need to complete biological functions including digestion, ecdysis, and gestation.

 

     In October cold nights arrive but the warm days allow for copperheads to still be located in reduced numbers. In the places where we look for snakes copperheads are no longer active in November on the surface. Copperheads retreat underground during the winter months. We are aware of locations in the mountains of eastern Kentucky where large groups of these snakes congregate at, “dens” to over-winter. However, we have not witnessed this phenomenon in many other regions of Kentucky. We suspect that conditions in the eastern mountains provide only so many places where copperheads can survive the winter and so they are forced to den together, while copperheads living in other regions of the Commonwealth are able to more easily locate places to spend the winter either individually or in smaller numbers.

 

Young copperheads have a sulphur-colored tail, unlike any non-venomous snake in Kentucky. They use their tails as lures to attract prey.

 

Copperheads benefit from AC. We found 24 utilizing it at this single study site.

 

     AC and trapping have been two very effective methods for locating copperheads in the surveys we have conducted. AC provides situations that make it possible to locate copperheads throughout the vast majority of their active season. When we make an AC site we deploy some pieces in full sun, some in partial sun, and others in shade so that we might locate a copperhead no matter what time of the day or season it is when we visit. I remain amazed at the number of snake hunters that I come across who associate metal and other AC with finding snakes but also clearly do not fully understand how the process really works. Whether it is timing, placement, angles, or countless other factors, it is clear that many snake researchers struggle with how to really capitalize with AC. A prime example of this involves the sizes of the cover pieces used. As Phil and I travel across Kentucky each and every year we inevitably stumble upon projects being conducted by other people, including University students. I can’t tell you how many times that we have found sites where all the cover pieces are 2 feet long or maybe four feet long. It seems almost as if the person cuts the big pieces into little ones so that they have a higher number of objects so that they can quantify things using the scientific method and appear to have a more legitimate sampling method. In plain English, little pieces are not as good as big pieces. Look at the picture above. THAT is a study site and this is what you want to make in order to find things like copperheads and rattlesnakes in large numbers. In fact, huge piles of metal and boards will often reveal broad snake species profiles. In addition to this, you will also find large numbers of specimens, large examples for each species, and if properly layered you will also find that your site will produce during months when little tiny objects produce nothing except for bugs. Big huge heavy objects that are layered provide the kind of conditions that copperheads prefer, and they benefit from them if they are set up in places where they will not be disturbed by anyone except for those conducting surveys. We always use the biggest and heaviest pieces that we can get our hands on.

 

    

We often see “morphs” like this hypo and partially striped specimen.

 

Typical box-style funnel trap array with artificial cover deployed.

 

     Because copperheads are so common in the areas where many of our traps are located, they are one of the most numerous species of  snakes that find their way into our traps.

 

A copperhead crawling into one of our traps.

 

It is always nice to see this when we open our traps!

 

      Once we begin to see copperheads active on the roads at night we know that we will also find large numbers of them in our traps. During the active season we have to check our traps very often and it is not uncommon to find 4-8 copperheads at a single trap site. Many of our trap arrays consist of a central trap and four satellite traps, one at the end of each line of silt fence. The photo above is of four copperheads that were in one of the five traps in a single array. On this day all five traps had copperheads inside.

 

A Copperhead with a rabbit in its belly.

 

     Phil and I have located several copperheads well over 40 inches in length, including one that was 48 inches long. The photo above shows a 43 inch long copperhead that had eaten a small rabbit, both of which had found their way into one of our traps. We knew that copperheads had a very cosmopolitan diet and were excited to record that rabbits were a species on their list of prey items. I regret not putting a dollar bill or something else next to the snake for size reference. It is difficult to really appreciate just how swollen and large the snake in the photo actually was. The rabbit was a young one, but it was weaned and had some good size to it.

 

We often find copperheads in our traps along with timber rattlesnakes.

 

 

Phil steadies himself at a safe distance as he photographs two copperheads in our trap.

 

     The photo above provides an example of how to keep a safe distance while taking pictures of copperheads. Phil had his camera ready and snapped his pictures just as the trap was opened and I had my hook ready to go if the snakes decided to move. Phil and I NEVER free-handle copperheads or any other venomous snakes because to do so is not only foolish, but could also result in our driving to a hospital instead of the next tin field where a pine snake or some other killer find might be waiting for us. Just as a loaded gun can only go off if the trigger is pulled, a copperhead can only bite a person when they put themselves in harm’s way, so always be sure that you do all that you can to stay out of the biting range of these pit vipers.

     A bite from one of these snakes is always described as being VERY painful and we have heard from a few friends that it feels like molten metal is being injected into your body. A Kentucky man recently died from the bite of a copperhead, but death due to a bite from this snake is very rare. In many cases antivenin is not used for copperhead bites. Even so, anyone bitten by a venomous snake should go to the hospital immediately. While death is unlikely, you are going to feel severe pain and your wallet will end up hurting as well.

     Over the last 10-15 years the number of wildlife programs on television has dramatically increased. People clearly find these shows to be highly entertaining. Much of the entertainment value of most of these programs comes from a host who is portrayed as a scientist or expert, but also as a Wildman or daredevil. Over the years Phil Peak and I have seen many people come and go through our Herp Society, other herp societies, zoos, reptile shows, forums, etc and many of them have been clearly influenced negatively by the programs that are on television. I am often amazed at the number of people who will put their hands on a venomous snake in a careless manner. If you are a person out there with a new-found interest in snakes, take my word that a real snake man does not free handle venomous snakes. Putting yourself in a position where you can be bitten is ignorant. Even worse is brandishing an old bite wound as a badge of honor. Such behavior is the height of folly. Searching for copperheads and photographing them is great fun and it can be done safely. Always do everything you can to remain safe and always refrain from taking any and all unnecessary risks. There are many experiences in life to be discovered and enjoyed, but like aids and herpes, drastic measures should be taken to avoid venomous snake bites!

 

Two fingers on the tube and two fingers on the snake keeps a snake hunter safe!

 

     In addition to photographing snakes, Phil and I gather baseline herpetological data and record it. As we survey for reptiles and amphibians there are times when we need to put our hands on venomous snakes in order to collect information. When it comes to the lengths of large specimens we cut out guess work and bring out measuring tapes so that we collect accurate information. We do not guess how long the snakes are that we find, we KNOW how long they are because we measure them. The photo above shows me restraining a 42 inch long copperhead in a tube designed for use on venomous snakes. When I was in my early 20’s a group of five guys in their 40’s taught me over the course of many years about how to properly and safely handle venomous snakes, kind of like how my father and grandfather taught me how to properly and safely handle firearms. You can also see in this photo that I am gently pinching the snakes vent. I am doing this to support the rear end of the body and also in order to block the action from musk glands. Many snakes musk wildly and randomly when threatened, but pit vipers like the copperhead will often aim at your face and spray. Unlike many snake people that I meet, I enjoy the smell of snake musk…but not in my eyes and all over my face. When we need to tube a venomous snake we put it in a bucket and coax the snake with a hook into the tube. Once it is 8-12 inches up the tube I drop the hook and use my empty hand to grab the snake AND the tube. If you only grab the snake or only grab the tube, the snake can exit and bite you. I make sure to have two fingers on the tube and two on the snake. As soon as I have that completed I grab the tail end and secure the vent so I do not get sprayed down with musk. Once the snake is secure Phil uses the tape to measure the snake and we are also able to gather other information if we need to. Of the 714 live copperheads that we have found since 2003 we have tubed three or four and never laid our hands on any of the others.

 

    

 

     Our sincere interest in copperheads always leaves the people that we meet shaking their heads, sometimes in wonder, but most of the times in disdain. For Phil and I it always comes down to our interest in the snakes, but I have to admit that we have a whole lot of fun as we search for snakes and a lot of times the most fun is where we might least expect it to come from. On one occasion we asked a man if we could search for snakes on his property and he told us that we could but that we would have no luck as he had not seen a snake in decades. We took that photograph of the four gravid copperheads under the board about ten yards from his trailer! Everyone we meet kills every copperhead they find, so we made sure not to tell the guy that we found anything and had some good laughs as we drove away. If he only knew what was going on just outside his door!

     For us, there is no better way to spend time than hunting snakes and the longer we can stay out doing it the better. All of our off days and weeks of vacation are spent looking for snakes, usually for five to seven days at a time. We have the best success when we can spend days in a row hunting. In addition to learning about the biology of all the different snakes in the State, we also end up meeting and learning about the people of Kentucky. We have met many interesting and outlandish characters, but the vast majority of the people we meet in rural areas are very friendly and the exact opposite of the way that they are often portrayed by the media and by people from other regions of America. As we set out to learn about how many babies copperheads have, when they have them, when they emerge, what they eat, and all the other aspects of their natural history we also end up learning the truth about many other things along the way. This is why the best times are always had outdoors and why everyone should spend more time engaged in such activities.

 

If you are unable to appreciate the natural beauty and wonder of copperheads I feel sorry for you.