Is That a Copperhead?

by Ann Barnes, EMGV

Recently, my colleagues and I were surprised by a copperhead curled up in our compost bin. Fortunately, nobody was bitten, and we were able to move the snake to a safe location. Harmless snakes are often mistaken for copperheads. Take a look at this excellent site from the Virginia Herpetological Society and learn to spot the differences.

Copperheads are found throughout North Carolina. They are carnivores, eating mice, birds, lizards, frogs, and some insects. Copperheads live where their prey is plentiful – wooded areas, near streams and ponds, and around covered areas such as wood piles, rock walls, compost piles, stumps and debris. During summer, copperheads are more active at night and hidden during the day. Their coloring provides excellent camouflage.

While copperhead bites are seldom fatal to humans, they are painful and require medical attention. According to Dr. Whit Gibbons of the University of Georgia, most snakes that are approached by people will first try to escape. If escape is not a possibility, most venomous snakes will give a warning – such as a rattlesnake’s tail vibration or a cottonmouth’s open mouth – before striking. Copperheads react differently: they tend to strike without a warning if unable to escape human contact. Many copperhead bites occur when people step on or accidentally touch a snake. Experts recommend avoiding these snakes and allowing them to escape. Use caution when doing yard work (especially in overgrown areas) or participating in outdoor activities such as hiking.



A Snake in the Garden

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

While cutting back tall perennial grasses in the native area at Duke Gardens one morning a couple of springs ago, I uncovered this little guy. He was huddled inside a dead leaf that was lying deep amongst the tall leaves of the grass. He seemed undisturbed by my cutting, even after I completely exposed him.


While I was silently expressing my gratitude for that (it is a snake, afterall) a young couple strolled by, one holding a camera with a very large lens. I called out, “Hey, do you want to see a baby snake?” The man stopped and said, “Sure! I’m a former snake collector.” (Now, what were the odds of that?)

He kneeled down to have a look and then gently picked it up for a closer examination. He told me it was a male Northern Brown snake (Storeria dekayi), fully grown but underweight. Probably cold–it was 35 degrees in Durham that morning–and thirsty. In a matter of moments the snake had flattened itself out to gather warmth from the man’s hand, or feeling threatened, it did that to appear larger.


The couple was in Durham to interview for post-doc positions and came to the garden because they love nature. He said he was hoping to see something cool, and his delighted expression told me he was successful! I was glad to have been a part of his experience. And I bet the snake was glad, too, for in the end I directed the couple to the closest pond area where the man planned to relocate the snake so he could drink up.

A new day, another snake
This morning while weeding non-natives out of a natural wooded area I disturbed another snake that also appeared to be a Northern Brown. I decided to learn more about these non-poisonous creatures with whom I share the garden.

  • Adult Northern Brown snakes are usually 9 to 13 inches. They are common throughout the eastern half of the United States.
  • Juveniles are uniform dark brown to black, with a narrow cream to yellow collar on the neck.
  • They hibernate during the winter and spend most of their lives underground or under rocks, logs, or leaf litter (which is where I found mine this morning – very well camouflaged until it wiggled).
  • They eat earthworms, slugs, and snails. (They do not eat gardeners!)
  • During mild weather they are active during the day; In warm weather they are active during the night.
  • Snakes have an excellent sense of smell (and poor eyesight and hearing). Snakes smell through an organ on the roof of the mouth called the Jacobson organ. When a snake flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, it collects scent particles from the air which the snake passes to the Jacobson organ.
  • 70 to 80% of bites occur when people try to capture or kill a snake.

The most useful information I learned is that a snake (not just a Northern Brown) can only strike with authority within a distance of one-half its body length. So maintaining a reasonable distance (four to six feet or more) will keep you safe and give the snake time to go on its way. Good advice for us all.


Sources & Additional Information

Of 37 species of snake in NC, only six are venomous.  View photos here:

Note to readers: My apologies if you know more than me or than that young man and identify this reptile as something other than a northern brown snake.  I have read that a midland brown snake is similar in appearance. As a Master Gardener, I am trained to identify plants not snakes.  But I am often curious and always interested in learning about the natural world as I suspect you are, too.