How To Easily Identify A Copperhead Snake: What Makes It Different?

Copperhead snakes are among the group of snakes that are most commonly encountered by the general population in the United States.

They are also among the most aggressive species of snakes when threatened although their bites are not so fatal since their venom is not very potent.

Still, a copperhead can bite you without warning and hurt you a lot. So before you embark into that camping trip it would be good to know how to identify a copperhead snake to avoid any undesirable encounters with the creature.

Encounter with Humans

encounter with copperhead snake

The copperhead is very common in the United States and is responsible for the most number of snake bites in the country with thousands of people getting injured each year.

Due to their huge population and prevalence is domesticated areas, it is not unusual for humans to encounter these snakes and get bitten by them.

At least 5,000 – 8,000 snakebites from Copperhead snakes have been reported in the U.S. every year, which is a huge portion of the overall 55,000 cases of yearly snakebites in the country.

The Copperhead Snake


According to PennState Extension, the copperhead got its name from its copper-red head (which is just fitting). There are also other snakes that are referred to the same name although in a non-scientific sense or common name.

Sharp-nosed vipers, Australian copperheads, radiated rat snakes, and Water Moccasins are sometimes referred to as copperheads although these are not the same as the North American copperhead.

The North American copperhead species is (Agkistrodon contortrix). These species of snakes are composed of pit vipers such as water moccasins and rattlesnakes

Natural Habitat

The snake dwells in different natural habitats within its range. In North America for example, it prefers an environment of mixed woodlands and deciduous forests.

It is said to be commonly found in ledges and rock outcroppings although the snake is also found creeping in lowlands and swampy regions.

It hibernates within limestone crevices and dens with Black Rat snakes and Rattlesnakes during winter time. Around the Gulf of Mexico and in the United States, the snake could be lurking in coniferous forests.

Watch out for copperheads if you are planning on a camping trip within those states.

General Description of Pit Vipers


Pit vipers are notorious for their heat-sensing pits between the nostril and eyes located on either side of their heads.

This heat-sensing feature enables the snake to detect small changes in temperatures and strike at its source (the prey) with great accuracy.

General Characteristics Of Copperheads

Body Size and Length


Averaging 2 – 3 feet or .6 - .9 meters in length, copperheads are medium-sized snakes. They have thick, muscular bodies and ridged scales.

According to Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kingston page, female copperheads have longer lengths than males although the later have longer tails.


According to John from Mid-Atlantic Wildlife Control, the copperhead comes with only one color ratio. You will notice the hourglass patterns along with the tan and brown markings on it.

He also added that the juveniles, when they are first born, have a greenish-yellow color.

There are other nonvenomous snakes that have the same color patterns, and they are often mistaken for copperheads. It is only the copperheads though that has the hourglass-shaped marks.


The snake’s head lack these color patterns and the only adornments found in the area are the dark dots at the top. Rick Curren, the scaley dad of Scaly Adventures, describes the snake’s head as “really coppery in color.”

The heads are a bit triangular or arrow-shaped and distinctive along the neck with a unique ridge on top of the head in between the nostril and eye.


They have vertical pupils like the cat’s and irises that are usually reddish-brown, tan or orange in color.

Young copperheads have a more grayish color, although you can also identify them with the same distinctive features.


The copperhead snake protects itself through camouflage. The level of aggressiveness among the individuals vary from quick at biting when threatened to don't bite and just wants to be left alone. 

They can get real aggressive when disturbed during rest or while on the hunt. Once agitated, the copperhead will vibrate its tail fast and release a strong smell.

The Ohio Public Library Information Network mentioned that copperheads are out during the day in fall and spring but becomes nocturnal during summer. They like going out during warm, humid nights after the rain.

While they usually dwell on the ground, these snakes sometimes climb over trees and bushes to look for prey or bask under the sun. They can also be occasionally found swimming on the water.

Diet and Feeding Patterns

Copperheads are carnivores that feed on mice, lizards, birds, and insects. They have fangs that inject venom into the prey, damaging their red blood cells. Succumbing to lack of oxygen, the prey becomes an easy meal for the snake.

Copperhead snakes are masters of ambush. It catches its prey off-guard with a surprise attack, biting and releasing venom into its system. The snake will then track its prey down and feed on it.

Juvenile copperheads feed mostly on insects like caterpillars. The yellow-green tails of the juveniles were designed for a specific reason. These tails flip back and forth like a worm to attract and catch prey.

How to Identify a Copperhead Snake


So if you ever meet a snake which resembles a copperhead, look for the follwing distinctive to verify its identity:

  • Hourglass marking on its body
  • Triangular shape and plain copper colored head with no markings

Things to remember:

  • If you ever encounter a copperhead in your camping trip, leave it alone, especially when it is agitated.
  • Mating season may be a bad time to encounter copperheads since animals have the tendency to become aggressive during these periods due to intense hormonal activity.

Other Characteristics

Reproduction and Development

The Snake’s Bite

Copperheads of both sexes reach sexual maturity in four years. By that time, the snakes would already be two feet long. Breeding seasons are from February – May and August – October.

The typical copperhead courtship may last an hour or more depending on the response of the female. Mating time may vary from 3.5 – 8.5 hours.

The Snake’s Bite

Compared to the majority of venomous snakes, copperheads can attack without warning and strike without hesitation once they feel threatened.

They release hemotoxic venom that often causes temporary damage to the tissue or affected area. The bite is painful but not fatal to humans.

Children, elderly people, and immune-compromised people may have a different reaction to the venom and must seek immediate medical attention when bitten.


If ever you go out on a camping trip and bump into a snake that you suspect is a copperhead, just remember the distinctive characteristics of the copperhead snake discussed in this post.

People can easily mistake the copperhead from an eastern milk snake or the water snake, but the main difference lies in the fact that the copperhead snake has a distinctively triangular shaped, coppery brown head.

The milk and water snake have marks on their heads while the copperhead does not. The copperhead is the only snake in its genus which has an hour-glass color pattern.

If you ever encounter a copperhead snake in one of your camping trips, leave it alone. Many of the people who got bitten by the snake tried to kill it or get too close in order to drive it away.

These are beautiful, harmless creatures that only get very aggressive when threatened.

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2 thoughts on “How To Easily Identify A Copperhead Snake: What Makes It Different?”

  1. 1. Copperheads are no more likely to bite than any snake, venomous or non-venomous. As for warning, only Rattlesnakes are capable of “warning,” and even then, they can bite without rattling. Most any snake will bite if it feels threatened. That is not a unique Copperhead trait.

    2. That last photo is NOT a Copperhead. It is a harmless Garter Snake.

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