Don’t mess with a copperhead

Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, September 7, 2021

August and well into September is the period during which farm families were most wary of copperheads.

We always felt — and I still do — that the area’s primary venomous snake is more aggressive this time of year than during other months.

Actually, it makes sense. Copperheads generally mate in the spring, and that’s also not a good time to bother them. Their young are born generally in August, and I suppose that a pregnant copperhead would have cause to be irritable. In addition, those that missed out in the spring sometimes mate in August and September. That’s why you come across one, be particular because there may well be a second one hanging around.

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Copperheads, as well as other vipers, live birth their offspring, but not like mammals do. They are known as ovoviviparous. Their young are hatched from eggs, but the hatching occurs inside the female after the offspring have matured. The baby copperheads are then born live and fully mature, rather than from eggs that were buried. Non-venomous snakes, such as garter snakes, bury their eggs like many other reptiles do, and leave them to hatch.

Copperheads played a big role in country lore in these parts simply because they were the venomous snake we most often encountered. The venom of cottonmouth moccasins is more potent, and they do inhabit some area marshes and numerous swamps, but a copperhead was far more likely to be found in a barn or woodshed. I learned quite early to use a weeding hoe to pull firewood from a woodpile in the summer, or to lift a board from a stack in a shed. I still follow that rule. There are some places you just don’t want to stick your hand.

Country folk had their own names for various wild animals, and copperheads were no exception. The viper was known throughout the South by several names. The most prominent, and the one I heard from Isle of Wight and Surry farmers, was poplar leaf. The copperhead has a body coloring that causes it to blend in with some fallen leaves, most notably poplar leaves.

Here in Isle of Wight and Surry, folks a couple of generations back further refined the name poplar leaf by simply shortening it. It came off their tongues as “poppa leaf.”

If you heard someone say, “I killed a poppa leaf in the woodshed this morning,” you knew precisely what he was talking about.

My parents always said — but this I can’t swear by — that copperheads favored cucumber patches in late summer. Supposedly they smelled like a cucumber or something. Probably folklore, but I did find a pair of quite large ones in the remnants of a cucumber patch that I had just disked under one summer. Actually, I found one and killed it. When I returned later in the day to show it to a friend, it moved. That’s when I realized I was looking at a second one. Fortunately, it moved before I walked up and nudged it with my foot.

Country folk have known for centuries that a copperhead can be cantankerous, or maybe just plain mean. A lot of scientists have tried to debunk that, saying any snake, given an opportunity, will slide away rather than strike you.

More than a decade ago, a North Carolina Extension specialist, Dr. Peter Bromley, set out to prove once and for all what venomous snakes would do when cornered.

He placed cottonmouth moccasins, rattlesnakes and copperheads in three separate snake pens, then repeatedly walked into first one, then the other, wearing protective boots, of course.

Both the rattlesnakes and moccasins coiled up, raised their heads and gave a warning to “stay away.” If he moved no closer, the snakes stayed put. He concluded that they would first try to get away, second, warn the intruder, and third, when all else failed, strike.

Not so with the copperhead. When Bromley walked into the pen and got a bit too close to the copperheads, they just skipped stage two and attacked him. And this happened repeatedly.

The farmers of Isle of Wight and Surry in the 1950s could have told the good doctor not to bother. They already knew the copperhead is one mean so and so.

Snakes perform a valuable function, including the elimination of rats and mice. But they all deserve our respect. Even a black snake will bite you if cornered or carelessly picked up, but a copperhead should be among our most respected reptiles.

One more point. For every copperhead I’ve seen over the years, I’ve seen dozens of northern water snakes and brown snakes. Both have patterns that shouldn’t be easily mistaken for a copperhead, but they’ll still make me jump back and think about what I’m looking at every time.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is