Skip to main content

The Copperhead: A Venomous American Pit Viper

Wesman Todd Shaw grew up dove hunting in Texas starting at age twelve.

A Trans-Pecos copperhead

A Trans-Pecos copperhead

The Copperhead

I was living in a travel trailer on someone else's property in a place called Gray's Prairie, Texas; and this community is close to other small Kaufman County, Texas communities such as Styx, Peeltown, Scurry, and my hometown, Kaufman. I was earning some beer money that day, cleaning up some brush, and my taskmaster was a woman I call "the screamer." Literally, the woman preferred to scream than to talk, but she wasn't in the habit of screaming at me, so I was as okay with it as I could be. She had me picking up and trimming dead limbs around the place, and followed me about in her wheelchair. Leading me to another evergreen tree of some kind or another, she asked me to trim a large, creeping rose bush that grew alongside it. I lifted a large limb and headed close to the tree trunk, shears in hand. Then, before I knew what happened, I was at least six or seven feet back, my arm's undersides were raw, and or scrapped up, and I was laying on my back, scrambling to my feet, and my adrenaline level was at levels that I could describe as "Three Mile Island."

"What the hell happened?"

Breathless, and regaining my feet, I told her that there was a large Copperhead under the tree. Of course, that particular snake lived about a minute longer, and then I returned with a shovel, which destroyed it, and then disposed of it. The family on the property had five young and very active children. There is no need to take chances with venomous snakes close to a home with children, and the woman herself raised dogs and had lots of pups that would have been at risk as well.

On another occasion, walking around dazed and confused, a crazy idea struck me on a November day. I kicked a large decaying tree stump. The tree trunk, rotted to the core, shattered, and inside was a nest of very angry, hibernating Copperhead Vipers.

The killing of Copperhead snakes is very common, but is most often accidental—it happens when someone mows an overdue yard, or when one is "weed eating" along a fence. I once killed one with a garden hoe while up-ending a decrepit, and largely fruitless strawberry garden.

The Copperhead

The Copperhead

Agkistrodon contortrix: The Copperhead Pit Viper Snake

Agkistrodon contortrix is the Latin for the genus and species for the North American Pit Viper snake which has come to be known as the Copperhead, and this snake is smaller and is supposed to have a less deadly venom than its cousin, the Water Moccasin. The Copperhead is an ambush predator, waiting in an opportunistic spot for frogs and small rodents. For that reason alone, the snake is useful to have around—just so long as it is not too close to the homestead.

Four feet and six inches long is the length for the largest ever reported Copperhead, a full foot shorter in length than the longest Water Moccasin that I have killed myself. This snake, however, is one that is camouflaged to the max in regards to its environment. One of these can be stepped on without knowing unless, of course, you suddenly feel a sharp pain followed by nausea, then you'll know, and hopefully, you will have someone to carry you to a car, and drive you to a hospital for a bit of anti-venom. Cell phones, what did we ever do without them?

It's important to know that these predatory reptiles don't have any desire to bite you or me, and they will leave the area given the opportunity. However, they tend to freeze and remain totally still rather than slither away when approached by humans. This is surely the result of the common human reaction to seeing a snake, i.e., "kill it on sight." Copperheads have faith in their very good camo, but when physical contact is made, often a "dry bite," or bite without making a venomous injection is the result for the fortunate. Though all American Pit Viper snakes are capable of dry biting, the Copperhead is especially fond of this method of warning. I'm reasonably certain that dry bites or venomous bites, all snake bites should be checked out by a physician. I have issues, personally, with the cleanliness of any reptile's mouth. I think that you should have those same concerns.

One hundred milligrams of venom is the estimated lethal dose of Copperhead venom, and this is slightly less than the lethal dose of the Water Moccasin; the Water Moccasin, however, injects much more venom in a typical bite than does a Copperhead. In any case, a trip to an emergency room, and a dose of CroFab anti-venom should make the experience of a Pit Viper's snake bite into a wonderful family story—a warning for the grandkids.

In a video on the web I had once viewed, a man said, "most adults recover from Copperhead bites with no medical treatment at all."

Look, a few weeks ago I cut a finger very badly while sharpening a fillet knife. I came close to hitting bone with the cut, but I didn't go get stitches. I don't have any money, and I don't have any medical insurance. But I swear to the entire world here and now that if I get bit by any snake, then somebody better RUSH me to the nearest emergency room. I'm not chancing anything with snakes. I think the guy should have followed his line with, "but you should always see a doctor immediately after a snake bite!"

Master of Camouflage, The Copperhead Pit Viper Snake

Master of Camouflage, The Copperhead Pit Viper Snake

Live and Let Live

There is a lot of needed talk in this modern world about conservation of both lands and species of critter. Lands are discussed in the manner of keeping them in the same ecological state as they were in when we found them. I have to agree that this is most often a good idea. So far as biology is concerned, it's idiotic and harmful for all to totally eliminate, or make extinct any species of critter . . . for most any reason. Personally, I hate red wasps, and stinging scorpions with a sense of passion—but were they all gone, then surely some other part of the whole would be disturbed into a state of domino effect ecological imbalance.

Copperhead snakes are out there, and living with them is something we have to do. I've killed a lot of them, but I've only ever killed a copperhead for it being too close to the home place. I have an obligation as an adult male to be responsible for those who're younger or older and weaker than I am; or really, I have an obligation to everyone who comes here to see to their safety insofar as I am able. I'd never kill a copperhead out in a field were I out fishing or hunting. I'd fear a plague of mice for killing snakes without cause. I'd deserve a plague of mice for it too.

Copperheads are in no danger so far as biodiversity goes, and are not an invasive species anywhere. I have in each of the last two years had a long-time family friend get bit by a copperhead in early Spring. Cro-Fab anti-venom can be nearly as deadly as the snake bites, but nobody wants tissue necrosis for a snake bite, but the anti-venom could possibly destroy one of your kidneys. The only good news is a copperhead bite could be a dry bite, and its venom is not nearly as potent as other pit vipers. Look carefully, friends and readers, before sticking your hands in leaves or moving around a pile of wood, look carefully at the base of trees before getting too close, and keep the copperhead in mind.

Can you find the copperhead pit viper in this photo?  If not, you just got bit!

Can you find the copperhead pit viper in this photo? If not, you just got bit!

Questions & Answers

Question: Where is that snake in the picture?

Answer: Ha! You mean the one in the leaves? That copperhead is totally there, and that is what makes them fairly dangerous. When I was a child, I lived not far from where I'm sitting, maybe 4 miles away, and I used to kill a lot of copperheads whenever I'd run the push mower, or the weed eater. I'm saying I did this on accident. I never saw the snakes until I heard the strange noise, and started seeing blood.

Question: Do snake repellents work? If so, what type?

Answer: We raise chickens here where I live, and none of the ones I've tried have worked well at all. I can't say what brand, if any, does work well. What helps is if you can get some Greater Roadrunners to live near you - those birds feast on snakes.

© 2011 Wesman Todd Shaw


Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on May 08, 2019:

You're braver than me, Michael. I don't want to catch snakes, I generally want to get as far away as possible from them.

I've read disturbing reports of price gouging for anti-venom. Someone gets bit by a pit viper, gets injected, and when they get out of the hospital the bill is over one hundred thousand dollars.

That's not good pricing, I'm certain, but all the more reason to stay away from pit vipers.

Michael hartsook on March 16, 2019:

I live in East Tennessee we have copperheads and timber Rattlesnakes , they are mostly in the mountains. I got bit on the inside of the thumb by a copperhead and the DR said it was a dry bite they was a little bit of venom on one of the bite marks my hand swelled up and hurt I don't want to go through that again.the reason i got bit i was trying to catch the snake I had caught snakes since i was a boy. I like snakes and i sure want kill one they do a lot of good getting rid of rats and insects.

HubTub on February 27, 2012:

You're welcome. Look forward to reading!

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 27, 2012:

Thanks Hob Tub!!!!!!!!!!!

I feel exactly the same as you do! I don't like snakes, but I like to learn about them and write about them because they are just damn interesting!

HubTub on February 27, 2012:

As petrified as I am of snakes, I find them fascinating at the same time. Thoroughly enjoyed this hub. Your own personal accounts with the snakes are scary and somewhat funny at the same time. Spectacular photos and video. Voted up and awesome!

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 05, 2012:


Oh heck yeah! Really though, a good cheap snake charmer would be

Either of those! Both of mine are just two feet away from me!

hazelwood4 from Owensboro, Kentucky on February 05, 2012:

Last week I read your extremely informative article about the Taurus Judge, and after reading this I will be purchasing this PISTOL-SHOTGUN soon for protection! I think I have my wife sold on the idea too after reading all these snake articles tonight.:)

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on May 08, 2011:

I would have to fight myself with all my high and holier statements about not killing snakes without a very good reason.

I had a nightmare about a water moccasin just the other day. Now, while fishing this Spring - I didn't kill the Water Moccasin that slithered between my legs - but that might have been because I didn't have any good way to kill the thing, or anything good to kill it with. So the end result is that I got to feel like I was all Mr. Good Sense, or something - but if I'd had a gun on me, I'd have blasted that snake to pieces, and I know it.

I don't like them. I don't like them. I don't like them.

I should like them though - my snake hubs are doing pretty well, they are doing better than most of my other hubs - and I don't feel like I really worked that hard on them. I should write more about snakes!

I damn sure wouldn't want to handle some pickle or Mason jar with a venomous snake in it - HELL NO.

There's a guy on youtube, let me find it - he's a snake guy for sure, and he gets tired of dumb comments and questions; but the human fear of snakes isn't something that came from the Bible, you know and I know that it's a healthy biological adaptation passed down from the wise through the ages through genetics.

Here ya go - the Death Adder Lover.

Tracy Savage on May 08, 2011:

Thank you for adding that at the end about "better rush me to the nearest emergency room"! Anyone being bit or even suspecting that they came in contact with venom needs to be seen by a licensed physician. When I worked for a clinical lab in town, we had a general md out in the county that was well-known as a venom expert, and he had actual snakes in jars in his waiting room at that time. When I had on occasion been asked to pick up some specimens out there, I used to be pretty cautious when entering that facility- because when I say jars, I mean the old giant pickle jars with the screwtop lids. Felt like I went back about a century every time I had to go out in the sticks there, and the patients acted like there was not a thing wrong with it. *shudders* I asked them to put the specimens out in the lock box after a while. They just laughed. lol.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 30, 2011:

Thank you very much, Seeker7! Yeah, I read up on the U.K. adder, and found a great site for United Kingdom wildlife. That adder is a colorful snake as well!

Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on April 30, 2011:

Hi, What a fascinating hub and such a beautiful animal! I heard the name of the Copperhead but didn't know too much about them, so this was really interesting. You're right about the British Adder. It's a tiny wee thing and very shy. It is venomous and it's venom has been know to kill, but this is rare - I think less than 10 people in 100 years or something. Unfortunately one of the last victims was 5 year old kid, so I think the venom must be more potent on children, but having said this, dogs etc. seem to recover quite well if bitten. It's a bit odd. But as I said, adders are very shy and usually move well out of the way of humans. But getting back to your hub - really enjoyed this and the photos/videos are superb.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 14, 2011:

Hey Nell Rose, Christopheranton, another of Her Majesty's subjects, says that England has species of Adder snakes, and the Adders are WAY MORE venomous than my Yank snakes.

Of course England and the most of the U.K. is pretty populated, so I doubt that there's too many of those to be seen.

Now that I think about it, the English Adder is probably not nearly as venomous as the North American Coral snake, but the Coral snake is a very peaceful snake, and it doesn't want to mess with us two legged critters at all, and seldom ever bites anyone. When it does bite though, it's usually "Goodnight."

Nell Rose from England on April 14, 2011:

Hi, I think if I saw one I would probably sprint two miles before asking myself if it is dangerous! my adrenaline would take me farther than my legs! thank goodness I live in England! lol they are pretty though, cheers nell

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 14, 2011:

Hey James, Thank you! I always get sort of embarrassed after you've read a hub of mine, and then I see all sorts of grammar or punctuation errors.

I never cease to be amazed at how my eyes can just not see them - I tend to only see what I knew that I meant to have typed out!

The Link is to Steve Earl doing "Copperhead Road" on the David Letterman show. Steve has been one of my favorite singer/songwriters for a long, very long time now. He's certainly about as fearful as stirring the pot as you or I are!

Sounds like you Grandfather was a hell of a shot!

James A Watkins from Chicago on April 14, 2011:

I very much enjoyed your fine article this morning. I don't think I have seen a Copperhead, but I've seen my grandpa shoot a Water Moccasin through the head at thirty paces with a sidearm. And I love that song "Copperhead Road."

I like your digression at the end. Very interesting. Thanks for the good read. :D

Fallen Valkyrie on April 12, 2011:

Good grief, I pity the poor ER doctor. Must be hard to not laugh at patients on occasions like...having someone admitting to intentionally ingesting poisonous critters. I'll wait with ya, I see no need for slithery hunting when there are 10 cotton tails sitting out in my front 'yard' right now. Yard being my empty spot of barren desert outside, of course LOL.

zzron from Houston, TX. on April 11, 2011:

Cool, I love wildlife and animals of all kinds. I love to go to the zoo, every time is a new experience.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 10, 2011:

Hey thanks, zzron, I'm discovering that I like putting together hubs about the local wildlife!

zzron from Houston, TX. on April 09, 2011:

Cool hub, thanks for the lesson brother.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 09, 2011:

Hey Fallen Valkyrie! We've a well known family of local redneck warriors. . .um. . .well.. . . .most know of them, and avoid them, and for good reason. Anyone, the younger and more aggressive one (He's well over 40, still looks for fist fights) is quite a colorful storyteller, and the best story I've heard him tell is how his older brother ( think Billy Bob Thornton - "I Like The Way You Talk HMMMMMM) once ate a water moccasin, and had to be taken to the emergency room.

The doctor at the er couldn't actually believe that the story was true, and made the other family members repeat it several times, until he understood that the sick fool in his ER - had really killed, and cooked, and ate a water moccasin.

Long story short - I'm sure that you can eat any snake, so long as you know how to do it. I doubt my local police magnet knew what he was doing at all though.

I'll hold off on the snake hunting until such a time comes that all of the rabbits, squirrels, and even the raccoons have been hunted into hiding.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 09, 2011:

Hey Christopher, take you time, friend - you're only missing chances at heart attacks.

Fallen Valkyrie on April 08, 2011:

ROFLMAO!! Okay, so my wording set that up too perfectly...

justom from 41042 on April 08, 2011:

One time I gave a female copper head and she liked it so much she maced me and sent me on my way :-P It's time to stir thing up a bit Todd, watch for my slightly scatterbrained hub that's sure to piss somebody off.

Fallen Valkyrie on April 08, 2011:

I had to skip the video because it is far too early to be watching actual moving snakes on my screen. I'm with you - I've set a broken bone by myself but if I get snake bit, straight to ER I'd go.

Around here lots of people hunt and eat rattlers - can coppers be eaten, too? Not that I would, I'm just curious?

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on April 07, 2011:

I have never seen a snake in the wild. They are just not that common here. I am not in a hurry to see one either.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 07, 2011:

heheheheh! Those would be nice, and pretty expensive. I think that this: would be a brand that is hard to compete with here in Texas, at least for Texans with money.

I must admit that I have at least two more snakes to talk about, and some more species of fish as well. I also want to talk about Mountain Lions and bobcats! on April 07, 2011:

Come on Todd!

Let's be honest here.

When are you going to really talk about the main subject: your recently started business in snake skin shoes???

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on April 07, 2011:

I swear - I'm not going to continue talking about snakes. . . .as if it were my new favorite subject. I've just got this sub genre of my local wildlife going.