Last Tuesday, I was startled to see what looked like a copperhead snake crossing my driveway. In the shade of the walnut trees along the lane it was hard to discern the coloring within the snake’s markings. Still, a careful examination revealed a silver — not reddish — background on the snake’s back and sides. As I examined the snake’s head, neither the distinctive triangular shape of a pit viper’s head nor the unmistakable color of shiny new penny were present. I waived the close-up eye examination, which would disclose the shape of the pupils. It was just a milk snake — virtually harmless. I let it go on about its natural and beneficial snake business of helping to control insects and rodents.
Anyway, this encounter got me to thinking about Clint Ferguson’s article Watch Your Step in the June 12 issue and his buddy who thinks that every snake is a copperhead. The Spirit of Jefferson, the Review’s sister publication which also carries Clint’s column, included captioned photos of both a black widow spider and a copperhead to go along with the story. The caption under the copperhead photo caused me some concern; it read as follows: “Copperheads can often get mistaken for garter snakes and water snakes.”
See the problem? The caption should have read the other way around as Clint wrote in the article: “Garter snakes and water snakes often get mistaken for copperheads…” Trust me on this one — folks like Clint’s snake-phobic buddy will see this caption as a manifesto for the killing of any snake that they may chance to encounter.
Quite likely, I’ve encountered more real copperheads than most readers have and can even claim one close-up (too close, actually) sighting of a cottonmouth, also referred to as a water moccasin. According to my Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife, copyright 1959, we are safely north of the cottonmouth’s habitation range, although this particular snake apparently didn’t get the memo. It’s been noted that certain typically southern agricultural pests are extending their range to the north — this snake may have been elected to represent that movement on behalf of the reptile contingent. Oddly, though I’ve worked outdoors — often in the woods — for over 40 years, I have yet to see my first live rattlesnake. (Those unseen rattlers were probably there, shaking their heads, thinking “What a putz.”)
When one is struck at by a cottonmouth, there remains no mystery as to how the snake earned its name. Likewise, when one encounters a copperhead, there’s no question as to what kind of snake one has found. If, in an instant, you are not thoroughly convinced that the snake in question is a copperhead then forget it — it isn’t.
There are nearly 30 species of snakes that are native to West Virginia. Many of these snakes are colorful and ornately banded and look as though they would be right at home dropping from coconut trees and terrorizing grass skirted jungle tribesmen. However, of the many varieties of snakes in our region, only two (three if you believe my cottonmouth story) are poisonous.
Venomous snakes are easily identifiable, and with some caution, an encounter can be avoided. I have obtained some fame locally — or maybe infamy would be the better term — by carrying a harmless garter snake away from a barnyard and releasing it in the undergrowth. Meanwhile, men yelled, “Copperhead” and ran after hoes and shovels, leaving the young girls to catch the fainting old ladies.
There are those who insist that blacksnakes breed with copperheads, thus producing a venomous black snake. Since one of these species lays eggs while the other bears live young, such a crossbreeding would seem unlikely. However, rattlesnakes do go through a black phase during which their markings are barely discernible and may appear entirely black. Similarly, a cottonmouth may appear all black as well. Occasionally, some curious mutant snake specimens may be found but, as with the missing link of “evolution,” not enough specimens have been found to lend any credibility to either theory.
It must be a narrow, restrictive world for those who think that every snake is a copperhead, any climbing vegetation is a “poison vine” and any guy in a suit is out to swindle you out of your land and take your guns. Education provides the only escape. From what I’ve seen, many of these folks won’t enter an overgrown area because of the possibility that a poisonous snake may be hiding there. To this degree, their lives are controlled by snakes that don’t even exist.
So far, I know of no one who has died from a copperhead bite in West Virginia. According to my personal experience, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a poisonous snake. (I’ve been “bitten” or painfully shocked by lightning three times — poisonous snakebites: zero.) However, as Clint suggests, we need to watch our step in the great outdoors. It’s also a good idea not to lean on a tree, barn or wire fence in a thunderstorm.