Maybe it goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, this fear of snakes that humans often have; that and the fact that we generally don’t like things to bite us. But if you take the time to learn about snakes, that fear might diminish when you realize it’s just another animal that eats, poops, moves around and makes little babies like the rest of us. Okay, maybe they don’t put their pants on one leg at a time like you and me, but you get the point.
Fairfax County Park Authority nature centers are convenient local places to learn about snakes. Among the things you’ll learn – northern copperheads are the only venomous snakes in Northern Virginia, and they can be locally common in some parts of Fairfax County.
Copperheads are rather heavy-bodied snakes and are beautifully marked with dark brown, hourglass-shaped cross bands on a light brown or gray background. Adult snakes are usually two to three feet long, and the belly is a mix of white and black markings. They are eight to ten inches at birth, about the size of a pencil.
Baby copperheads look just like their parents, but they have a bright yellow or green tail that they wiggle and use to lure lizards and frogs within striking range. Like other pit vipers, copperheads have a triangular head with facial pits and vertical pupils, just like a cat.
Copperheads are most active at night, but can also move around or bask in sunshine during the daytime. In the hot summer, the woods are quite barren compared with our lush, irrigated yards, and various food sources around homes can easily draw rodents and snakes to your neighborhood.
What about snake bites?
The vast majority of snake bites occur when snakes are deliberately handled or poked by curious humans or curious pets. About 45,000 people are bitten by snakes in the U.S. each year, with about 8,000 of those bites coming from venomous species. Typically, unless you accidentally come into contact with a snake, you can avoid being bitten by maintaining a respectful distance from any snake that you see. Most snakes will remain motionless when you come upon them and will allow you to pass by safely. The best precautions you can take are to wear proper footwear such as closed-toe shoes on trails, wear fitted gloves when gardening or clearing areas of heavy foliage, and don long pants. Be aware of rock or wood piles outdoors. Snakes may hide there. Snakes also can be very hard to see in tall grass and under ground cover such as invasive English ivy.
I got bit
About seven years ago, I was bitten by a juvenile copperhead snake with a bright yellow tail. I was walking my dog at dusk on an asphalt trail through a wooded suburban park wearing flip-flops, and I probably stepped directly on the snake. It was just after a heavy storm, and leaves and mulch were scattered on the pavement, making the snake difficult to see. The snake bit me just below the ankle, and I probably could have prevented a bite if I had been wearing any kind of hiking or athletic shoe. Being a park naturalist, I always wear proper footwear and clothing when I’m out in the field, but I had let my guard down since I was at home in my own neighborhood. This taught me that you have to take the same basic precautions whenever you are in the outdoors.
If you fear snake bites, learning about snakes and keeping things in perspective will help. Though bites do occur, most people make a complete recovery with modern medical care. I have no lingering effects from the bite I received.
When not dealing with an emergency, if you get a photo of a snake and would like it identified, take the photo to a nature center. Staff on hand will gladly try to identify the snake and share information about why it was where you saw it.
Author Kristen Sinclair is the Senior Natural Resource Specialist for the Fairfax County Park Authority.