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As copperhead sightings increase in Onslow, what to know about the venomous snake

As Onslow weather heats up, so does snake activity, and residents have their eyes peeled for one kind in particular: the copperhead.

Jeff Hall, a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, said copperheads can survive in a wide variety of habitat types to include where people live. He said part of that is because of their varied diet.

“Because they eat all those different types of prey, they can live in lots of different places and they’re quite adaptable,” Hall said. “Relatively speaking, it’s a common species across the state, and certainly Eastern North Carolina is no different than that.”

Hall said copperheads eat everything from insect larvae, to amphibians like frogs and salamanders, other reptiles like lizards and small snakes, birds, and a variety of small mammals.

“Unlike some larger species of snakes, they seem to tolerate human development reasonably well,” Hall said. “As long as there’s a little patch of woods here, a little creek or drain there, something like that, you know, you’re going to see copperheads around.”

However, copperheads are not as dangerous as many may think.

Hall said that while copperheads are venomous, they are fairly low in terms of their danger level, and there has only ever been one recorded fatality in North Carolina. That fatality, according to Hall, was a 1-year-old child in the 1950s.

He said although a copperhead’s effective dose is not usually a big issue for most healthy adults, anytime you’re bitten by a snake you believe could be venomous, seek medical attention.

“There is no reason for anyone who thinks they were bitten by a venomous snake to not go to the doctor,” Hall said.

“It’s not something that people need to worry they’re going to die from, but there can be some sorts of complications like tissue damage or things of that nature. So, if bitten, you definitely want to seek medical attention.”

Hall did recommend not to use tourniquets or any of the old “suck and cut” tools, because they can cause more harm than good.

Onslow residents are posting their sightings on Facebook, and Hall said they are much more scared of you, than you are of them.
Hubert resident Sadie Floyd encountered a copperhead outside her home last week.
Hubert resident Sadie Floyd encountered a copperhead outside her home last week.

“Most species of snakes, copperheads included, are fairly low on the food chain,” Hall said. “So, there are a lot of things that want to eat them. So, as a result, camouflage is just monumentally important for all snake species. Their goal is to try and remain hidden at all times, if they can.”

Hall said copperheads will come out if they’re looking for water, a place to hide, a mate or something to eat. He said these instances are typically when they’re spotted by residents.

“If we just get out of their way, they’re going to go ahead and do whatever it is that they need to do and we don’t need to have any issues with that,” Hall said. “If we give animals time and space, they’re going to generally move on and get out of the way.”

Hall said to note the size difference between snakes and humans, and realize snakes are usually afraid they’re going to be lunch when they see a human.

“Generally speaking, when people have encounters with snakes that they’re fearful of, it’s because the snake is being defensive, because it’s afraid it’s going to become a meal,” Hall said. “One of the most important things that people can do to help learn and know about what’s around them, is to learn the snake species that are in the area where they live.”

Hall said this is important because copperheads are often misidentified.

“Almost every time someone sees a snake and they don’t know what it is, they assume it’s a copperhead,” Hall said. “That is just not, it’s very very frequent that’s not true.”

Hall said snakes frequently misidentified are juvenile rat snakes and juvenile black racers. While they both have blotched patterns, adult black racers are solid black, while rat snakes are a green-gray color with four black stripes that go down the length of the body, at least in the Onslow County area, Hall said.

On the other hand, Hall said copperheads have bands that go around their sides, in the shape of an hourglass.

“I’ve had people say if you look down the side, it looks like a row of Hershey’s kisses on the side,” Hall said. “If you see a snake that has blotches, not bands, it’s not going to be a copperhead.”
Copperheads are fairly low on the venom spectrum, with only one recorded fatality ever in North Carolina.
Copperheads are fairly low on the venom spectrum, with only one recorded fatality ever in North Carolina.

Hall added that freshly-born copperheads, often seen in the late summer-early fall, have brightly colored tail tips, usually bright yellow or chartreuse.

“So, if you see a little bitty banded snake that has a brightly colored tail tip, like I said, that brightly colored green, then you know for sure that’s a copperhead,” Hall said.

For those hoping to keep the little guys out of their yards and homes, Hall said there’s really nothing you can do to completely make sure you never see one, but there are ways to reduce the chances.

He said it’s a good idea to check around your home to make sure there are no gaps or holes, and remove any brush piles or piles of wood/debris, as snakes and other small animals tend to like to hang out there.

“The other thing you can do is don’t do a lot of mulching around your house, or don’t have lots of bushes around your house,” Hall said. “One other thing they can do is mow their grass a little more frequently, keeping it as low as possible. Basically, a yard with grass in it is a desert for most wildlife.”

Hall added that if a snake does turn up in your well-kept yard, it’s not going to stay for long. However, he did say if you’ve got bird feeders, you should probably remove those if you want to make sure snakes stay out of your yard.

“People that are absolutely petrified should remove everything from their yard that would potentially attract wildlife,” Hall said.

Hall encouraged residents to learn more about the snakes in the area, and realize that they are another part of the ENC wildlife, that they can be enjoyed.

“Snakes have fascinating lives,” Hall said. “They have some fascinating behaviors, and many of them are very beautifully colored like corn snakes and eastern hog nose snakes, so if people learn a little bit more about them and become a little bit less fearful, they can also be enjoyed as part of the wildlife of our state.”

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