By IAN McDOWELL, South Mendenhall Street
Newborn copperheads are 8-10 inches long and look much like mature copperheads except for their greenish or yellow tails, which they may use to attract lizards, and which lose that coloration after the first year. Other than that tail, their coloration is more grayish than that of their tan or coppery parents. Even at birth (females don’t lay eggs), juveniles have thicker bodies, larger heads and thinner necks than any other local snake that size. Their heads generally have the same distinctive triangular “adder” shape as adults.
A snake less than 8 inches long is almost certainly not a copperhead. Any snake less than 11 inches long without a greenish or yellow tip on its tail is unlikely to be a copperhead (copperheads lose that tail coloration after the first year).
I have examined over 30 alleged “baby copperheads” in College Hill since 1990. All were common brown snakes, worm snakes or ringneck snakes. It’s very difficult for any snake that must grow to be over 12 inches long before it can mate to survive in this or any suburban neighborhood. The idea of two sexually mature copperheads surviving long enough to find each other and have babies anywhere near downtown Greensboro is, although not inconceivable, highly improbable. There’s a reason you typically have to go out to the country to find kingsnakes, cornsnakes and ratsnakes these days, although those species were common in Fayetteville and Greensboro suburbs when I was a kid. (My late great-uncle, Olan Barnes, used to swear he’d blast rock salt into any “dang carpetbagger city folks” dumb enough to kill a black snake anywhere near his property, but that was when his old house at the corner of Friendly and Holden was still a chicken farm, and he had the country wisdom he’d acquired before the suburbs engulfed him).
Every time that one of my neighbors has killed a “baby copperhead” and I was able to examine the corpse, cutting open its head and examining its mouth structure with a high-powered magnifying glass revealed no trace of poison glands or fangs.
When Googling what juvenile copperheads look like, be sure you’re clicking on an image from a nature organization. Pinterest, Deviant Art, and Instagram are full of “baby copperheads” that aren’t. Most of the images pulled up in a Google image search on “baby copperhead” are adult worm snakes and brown snakes.
Only the photo of a mother with her young (above, at top) depicts baby copperheads. Agkistrodon contortrix, like most vipers, is an ovoviviparous species, meaning the eggs are hatched inside the mother’s body (a few species of snakes, such as boa constrictors and green anacondas, are viviparous and have placentas).
The second photo was the first hit produced by a Google image search on “baby copperhead,” but it’s a common brown snake (and too small to be a newborn copperhead).
The third photo is a worm snake, the most common snake in this area, and about as harmless as any animal can be. Leave it alone to eat slugs in your garden. It can’t hurt you, your kids or your pets (brown snakes can’t, either — unless you live in Australia, where “brown snake” denotes a different and larger species that is, of course, deadly, because Australia).
This post originally appeared on nextdoor.com and is published with the permission of the author.