Field Guide

Venomous Snakes of the U.S.

Field & Stream Online Editors


Copperheads are the most common venomous snakes in the eastern half of our country and are responsible for the most bites, about 3,000 annually. Fortunately, the venom is only mildly toxic. Those few who die typically invite simultaneous bites from several snakes during snake-handling ceremonies and don't seek medical treatment. The snake's distinctive hourglass pattern and triangular head make it easy to identify, but its autumn coloration blends so perfectly into the forest floor that it is commonly trod upon. Upland bird hunters are probably the sportsmen most at risk from copperhead bites, particularly those who stumble across denning sites in September or October and sit down for an ill-advised lunch break. Because these places are likely to harbor more snakes you don't see than ones that you do, back away from copperheads very slowly, watching where you place your feet.

Vital Statistics
Length: 2 to 3 feet. The southern copperhead is lighter in color and slightly larger. Habitat: Northern copperheads prefer forested ledge-rock areas in mountainous terrain, whereas the southern species occupies a variety of lowland habitats, including the edges of cypress swamps.

Forage: Frogs and rodents.

**Behavior: **Copperheads count on camouflage for safety and will typically remain motionless while allowing humans to pass within a few feet.

Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth)

A larger, swamp-dwelling cousin to the copperhead, the moccasin wears its hourglass pattern in a darker tint and has a disposition to match. Its bite is much more serious, though rarely fatal. Both copperheads and moccasins are commonly confused with a variety of harmless water snakes, whose stout, blotched bodies and puffed cheeks bear a superficial resemblance. The pit located between the eye and nostril that the venomous snakes use to detect warm-blooded prey is a giveaway, as is the vertical pupil (harmless snakes have round pupils). The cottonmouth moniker derives from the snake's habit of resting its head on its coils and opening its mouth when threatened, exposing the creamy interior. Although this snake's reputation for dropping out of tree limbs into boats is greatly exaggerated, moccasins are numerous in parts of the South and pose some risk for wading fishermen, as well as for duck and deer hunters who venture into the bayous and swamps.

Vital Statistics
Length: 3 to 4 feet, although 5-foot specimens are not uncommon.

**Habitat: **Sluggish waterways.

Forage: Frogs, rodents, fish, and other snakes.

Behavior: When surprised, moccasins typically swim away or drop from limbs and swim to the bottom. However, if they are confronted away from the water, they are more likely to stand their ground and strike.


Encompassing some 20 species across the U.S., rattlesnakes are our most widely ranging venomous snakes, with three southern varieties-the eastern and western diamondback and the Mojave-accounting for nearly all the nine to 14 snakebite fatalities reported annually in the U.S. Rattlesnakes are instantly recognizable by the segmented rattles at the end of their tails. Not all rattlesnakes rattle, however, so hunters and fishermen who traverse their territories should be careful, particularly during low-light hours.

Eastern Diamondback
Length: **4 to 6 feet.
**Habitat: **Scrub palmetto and dry pine forests of the coastal plaains.
**Forage: **Adults subsist almost entirely on rabbits.
Most will coil and face their adversaries, rattling vigorously, while maneuvering backward to seek refuge.

Western Diamondback
Length: 4 to 5 feet.
Habitat: Scrublands, grasslands, and open forests.
Forage: Birds and rodents.
**Behavior: **The western diamondback is most likely to stand its ground when confronted and has the fastest strike of any snake.

Length: 31/2 feet.
Habitat: Upland deserts, juniper woodlands, and lower mountain slopes in the Southwest.
Forage: **Desert rodents.
An excitable rattlesnake, the Mojave defends itself with vigor when bullied.

Coral Snake

The brilliantly colored coral snake is distinguished from several king snake mimics by the ordering of the bands. Remember the saying "Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, nice to Jack," and you won't make a mistake. Coral snakes are small, secretive, exceedingly docile creatures. Many children have unknowingly played with them without being bitten. However, the venom is highly toxic and the rare bites (fewer than 25 are reported annually) need to be treated seriously. Coral snakes pose no danger whatsoever to sportsmen who have the discipline to keep their hands in their pockets when encountering a pretty snake. Unlike pit vipers, which strike their victim and then immediately release, coral snakes need to hang on and chew to inject venom. If you're bitten, grab the snake and fling it off of you.

Length: 2 to 3 feet, with a thin round body and a head that is scarcely distinct from its neck.

Habitat: Vegetated hammocks and hardwood forests. The Arizona coral snake, which seldom exceeds 20 inches, is found in rocky upland deserts.

Forage: Small lizards and other snakes.

**Behavior: **Rather than coiling and striking at intruders, coral snakes often bury their heads in their coils and raise the underside of their tails, inviting predators to strike at the least vulnerable part of their bodies.