Description: Copperheads are fairly large – 24 - 40 in (61 - 102 cm), heavy-bodied snakes with large, triangular heads and elliptical pupils (cat eyes). The body is tan to brown with darker hourglass-shaped crossbands down the length of the body. Individuals from the Coastal Plain often have crossbands that are broken along the center of the back. The head is solid brown, and there are two tiny dots in the center of the top of the head. Juveniles resemble adults but have a bright yellow tail tip. As pit-vipers they have facial pits that sense heat and are used to detect prey and predators. Male copperheads are larger than females. Many harmless species in our region are confused with this species but copperheads are the only species with hourglass-shaped crossbands (all other species have blotches that are circular, square, or are widest down the center of the back).
Range and Habitat: Copperheads range throughout the eastern and central United States but are absent from most of Florida and south-central Georgia. Although copperheads are found in forested areas throughout most of South Carolina and Georgia, their habitat preferences change across our region. In the mountains, copperheads are most common on dry rocky hillsides and sometimes den communally with timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) on open, south-facing hillsides. In the Coastal Plain copperheads are most abundant in lowland hardwood forest and swamp margins. Copperheads are quite tolerant of habitat alteration and remain common in suburban areas of many large cities.
Habits: Copperheads can be found during the day or night, but forage primarily after dark during the hotter parts of the season. In the Piedmont and Coastal Plain they are frequently observed crossing roads on warm nights. In the mountains, copperheads are often found by day basking on rock outcrops or coiled in ambush postures. Copperheads are opportunistic feeders and are known to consume a variety of prey, including amphibians, lizards, snakes, small mammals, birds, and insects. Copperheads mate in the spring, at which time males move long distances in search of females. Females give live birth to 7 – 10 (up to 20) young in the late summer and probably only reproduce every other year. The young have bright yellow tail tips that they wiggle to attract prey such as frogs and lizards. Because they are common in forested habitats and are well-camouflaged, copperheads are responsible for the majority of the snakebites in the Southeast each year. Luckily, copperhead venom is not very potent and deaths from copperhead bites are exceedingly rare. Most snake bites occur when someone tries to kill or harass a snake, so the best way to avoid a bite is to leave any snake you find alone.
Conservation Status: Copperheads are locally abundant and are not listed at the state, federal, or heritage level. However, in many parts of their range they are killed by humans and many fall victim to road mortality. At the edges of their range copperheads are of conservation concern and are protected in Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
Fitch, H. S. 1960. Autecology of the copperhead. University of Kansas Publications of the Museum of Natural History 13:85-288.
Account Author: Kimberly Andrews and J.D. Willson
Juvenile copperhead - note yellow tail tip
Comparison of copperhead (left) with a reddish northern watersnake (right) - note hourglass pattern of copperhead