Baby copperheads are often found living in wood piles, garages, under bushes and near lawn furniture.
If you live in an area with copperheads then identifying this species is an important skill to have. These snakes are responsible for over 50% of venomous snakebites in the US each year! This is true despite them being only one of 20 venomous species in the United States.
Learning how to identify this species can be hard. Babies are very small and have a similar appearance to nonvenomous species like corn snakes and juvenile rat snakes.
In this article we cover the five best methods for identifying baby copperheads. We also answer your most FAQs to help keep your next encounter safe and placid.
Table of Contents
All About Baby Copperhead Snakes
The copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) is a venomous species of snake found in 28 southern and central states of the U.S and parts of northern Mexico. These snakes are widespread and found in environments from forests to fields to backyards, houses, lawns, porches and garages. Across their range they are divided into five subspecies:
- Broad banded
Their large wild populations and tendency to be found close to humans means encounters are common.
People who do not know how to identify copperheads often confuse them for harmless species like corn snakes, rat snakes and water snakes. This is especially true for infant or baby copperhead snakes as their pattern can look similar to a juvenile rat snake or king snake.
Baby copperheads are between 7 and 9 inches long with a triangular head and a beige-gray base color. They are patterned with dark brown, hourglass-shaped bands that start just below the head and end at the tail. Babies also have a bright yellow tail tip that they use to lure prey.
Most babies are born from mid-August until early October. This species has two breeding seasons in the U.S. One from February to May and one from August to October, though more northern populations only breed in the fall.
Females do not lay eggs. Instead they give birth to anywhere from 1 to 21 live babies, though this is normally between 4 to 8.
If you see a baby snake the best course of action is to leave it alone. Usually they will not remain in an area for long. Babies are nonaggressive, shy, and unlikely to bite unless provoked. Most copperhead bites occur when people attempt to kill, scare off, or move the snake on their own.
Many people believe that bites from juveniles are more deadly than those from adults. They often hear myths that juveniles cannot regulate the amount of venom they release. This is false. Juveniles control their venom, they also have smaller venom sacs and produce less venom than fully-grown adults.
The mortality rate from copperhead bites is less than 1%, despite the fact that they account for over 50% of all venomous snakebites. Their venom is relatively mild and rarely causes serious injury, but it is extremely painful. While rarely dangerous to a healthy adult, a bite is more serious for small children and pets.
If you live in an area with copperheads, it is a good idea to learn how to identify one. Knowing how to tell them apart from other nonvenomous species can help you make a better decision about when to contact a professional to relocate a snake safely.
5 Ways To Identify A Baby Copperhead
Baby copperheads are difficult to recognize because of their small size and uniform coloring. To an untrained eye they look very close to an eastern rat snake or corn snake. Identifying one in the wild is tougher than looking at baby copperhead pictures online, but having an idea of what to look for can increase your chances.
If you believe you have found one then try to identify and observe the snake from a safe distance. Do not attempt to get closer than six feet or pick up a baby.
Below are the most accurate and easiest ways to identify this species from a safe distance.
1. Hourglass Shaped Pattern
If you find a snake that could potentially be a baby copperhead the first thing to look at is its pattern. Their base color ranges from dusty gray and yellowish tan to brown and rusty orange. This color is crossed with dark-colored bands filled with light blushing on either side.
When viewed from above these bands cross perpendicularly directly over their spine. As they near the spine these bands narrow and become thinner. They widen out again on either side of the spine which gives them the appearance of an hourglass pattern.
Depending on the snake these hourglasses can be well-defined or offset. However, the general hourglass shape will remain consistent across the species. Some subspecies like the northern have intermittent spots between their hourglasses that provide them with additional camouflage in leaf litter.
Babies are born with more gray than adults, but they still carry the distinctive banding pattern.
The presence of an hourglass pattern is one of the most accurate ways to identify this species. In most cases this telltale pattern is visible from a safe distance, so you do not need to approach the snake.
Keep in mind the corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) also has dark, banded patterns which are similar and found in many of the same areas. However, their markings are saddle-shaped instead of hourglass-shaped. This means their markings grow wider towards the spine and narrower on either side.
2. Green Or Yellow Tail
Baby and young juveniles have an interesting characteristic not seen in adults. They have a bright, greenish-yellow tail tip! This neon green tail contrasts considerably with the rest of their body and stands out on any natural background the snake camouflages against.
Copperheads keep this yellow tail from hatching until they reach around two years old.
A neon green tail tip on an otherwise yellowish tan to brown snake is an accurate way to spot a baby copperhead.
The purpose of their green tail tip is thought to be related to the hunting strategies of young snakes. While adults primarily eat mammals and birds, the diet of juveniles mostly consists of small amphibians and insects such as cicadas, caterpillars and grasshoppers. Birds and rodents are more difficult for small babies to hunt and so make up a smaller proportion of prey items.
A baby will sit motionless in leaf litter and wiggle the green tip of its tail to mimic a caterpillar. The tail’s bright color and movement lures hungry frogs and toads into striking distance.
In the U.S. the only other snake species with a bright green or yellow tail tip as a baby is the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). This species lives near slow-moving bodies of water in the southeastern United States. Juvenile cottonmouths look very similar to young copperheads, down to the green tail.
Cottonmouths are closely related and are also venomous. In fact this species has a deadlier venom than copperheads. In either case, if you spot a baby snake with a green tail tip, proceed with caution.
3. Triangular Head
Copperheads have two venom glands that sit behind and below their eyes. These venom sacs and the surrounding muscle that controls the output of venom gives them a triangular head when viewed from the top. This triangle shape is common in most venomous snakes, especially pit vipers.
Baby copperheads are born with the distinctive triangular head shape as they have venom glands from birth.
Lookalike species such as young rat snakes do not have triangular heads. Instead they have slender, narrow heads that are the same width or slightly wider than their necks. In a baby copperhead the back of the head is significantly wider than the neck and tapers quickly to a pointed snout.
This identification method is best used for calm or relaxed snakes that are not in a defensive position (e.g. tightly coiled up or hissing).
Some harmless, nonvenomous snakes will purposefully flatten their heads into a more triangular shape when threatened. This behavior is common in hognose snakes and is used to mimic the appearance of a venomous snake to confuse predators and deter them from attacking. It is often accompanied by hissing, mock striking and a vibrating tail.
Baby copperheads have a triangular head shape even when not under stress. A triangular-headed snake that is basking, climbing or otherwise acting normally is likely venomous.
4. Heat-Sensing Pits
Copperheads are a member of the pit viper subfamily, Crotalinae. North America is home to several pit vipers, including cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. Snakes in this subfamily have a pair of unique, heat-sensing organs in their skulls. These organs can detect infrared radiation and allow these snakes to see body heat.
The openings to these specialized heat-sensing organs are located between the snake’s eyes and nostrils on either side of its head. They appear as a hole or pit between two scales and can look like a second pair of nostrils.
Snakes use these pit organs to detect the direction and quantity of infrared radiation. Using these organs they can accurately judge the position and size of potential prey or predators in low-light conditions when they may otherwise not be able to see.
These snakes can also use their heat pits to determine the surface temperatures of their surroundings and choose where to bask. This helps them thermoregulate in the wild and cool down or warm up.
If you see a baby snake with these unique openings on their face it is either a baby copperhead, cottonmouth or rattlesnake.
A snake with pits is guaranteed to be venomous! There are no nonvenomous species that have heat-sensing pit organs. The only other species with a similar appearance are boas and pythons. However, these snakes have two rows of smaller pits that run above their mouths, instead of having a single, large hole on each side of their heads.
5. Unbroken Ventral Scales
Another trait of baby copperhead snakes is the direction of their belly scales.
Snakes’ bellies are protected by a row of large, smooth, overlapping ventral scales that run perpendicular to the body. These ventral scales are used for movement and provide grip while the snake is slithering or climbing.
On nonvenomous snakes the ventral scales of the tail are divided into two rows. The seam between the scales gives them a zigzag or zipperlike appearance, which starts just after the cloaca and runs to the tip of the tail.
Baby copperheads do not have a split row of scales. Instead their ventral scales run as a single, uninterrupted row down the entire length of the underside of the belly, from their head to the end of their tail.
Belly scale structure is a foolproof way to identify this species, but should not be done with live snakes. It is very difficult to flip over a snake and attempting to do so can easily cause them to bite. Even species that are not considered aggressive will try to strike if flipped.
Their bodies are also covered in keeled scales. Keeled scales have a ridge running down the center of each scale which gives them a rough, triangular appearance.
It is both easier and safer to use one of the four other methods described above as a checklist.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Baby Copperheads Poisonous?
They are not poisonous, but they are venomous. Though these two terms are often used interchangeably, they actually mean two very different things. Venomous animals inject toxins into their prey by biting or stinging them. Poisonous animals or plants have toxins in their skin or tissue that can cause illness if eaten or touched.
Copperheads are venomous snakes and members of the pit viper family. They have a pair of venom sacs just below their eyes that produce a hemotoxic venom. When a baby bites something the venom flows through their hollow fangs and into whatever was bitten.
Compared with other venomous snakes copperhead venom is mild. It causes local tissue damage around the site of the bite, but usually does not result in permanent injury.
Babies produce less venom than adults, so their bites are likely to be less harmful and painful than a bite from a mature adult. As they grow their venom glands expand to hold more volume. This means that a bite from an adult is usually more serious than a bite from a baby, simply because the adult can inject more venom.
What Do Baby Copperheads Look Like?
They are small, grayish-red snakes that measure around 7 to 10 inches long. There are several things to look for when identifying this species, but they are most easily recognized by their hourglass-shaped markings. These dark, copper-colored bands are narrow along the spine and widen out on either side. When viewed from the top they look like hourglasses.
Juvenile and baby copperheads also have a signature green tail that is absent in other snake species. This tail tip is brightest and most noticeable in the first two years of the snake’s life. It usually fades completely by the time they reach three years old.
A triangular head shape, heat-sensing pits and slit-shaped pupils can also be used to identify them. However, these characteristics are not exclusive to this snake.
Some harmless species like hognose snakes will flatten their heads into a triangle when threatened to mimic a venomous snake. Cottonmouth and rattlesnakes have heat-sensing pits. Other snake species such as young rat snakes have dark-colored bands.
What Color Are Copperhead Snakes?
They range in color from grayish tan to rusty red or yellow brown. Juveniles have a bright, yellow-green tail tip that contrasts dramatically with the rest of their bodies. When hunting they use this tail as a decoy to draw in small animals who are attracted to its caterpillar-like appearance.
How Many Babies Do Copperheads Have?
On average these snakes have between four and eight babies each year, though litter sizes can be as few as 1 or as many as 21. Older more mature females tend to have more babies than younger individuals. This is likely due to their larger body size and bigger fat reserves.
Copperheads are one of the few snake species that gives birth to live young.
These snakes are ovoviviparous which means the eggs develop and hatch inside the mother’s body. They are then live birthed and are born developed and fully equipped to survive on their own. Hatchlings must fend for themselves as mothers do not provide parental care or protection for their offspring.
The birthing season extends from mid-August until early October. Most babies are born between the end of August and the first half of September.
Identifying baby copperheads simply takes practice and knowledge of their appearance and other species in your area. Juveniles are a rusty, grayish red color with distinctive hourglass-shaped bands across their spines.
Other characteristics include a bright green tail tip, triangular head, heat sensing pits and a single row of ventral scales. Some nonvenomous snakes may share one or two of these traits, but only a copperhead will have them all.
Copperheads are a common sighting in most areas of the eastern and central United States and Mexico. Though their total population is hard to determine, it is estimated that across their range their populations average 2.5 to 4 snakes per acre in areas with enough prey and habitat.
These snakes are responsible for over 50% of venomous snakebites in the U.S. each year, though less than 1% of copperhead bites are fatal.
The best course of action if you see any baby copperhead is to leave it alone. If necessary contact your local animal control to ensure that both you and the snake remain safe and unharmed.