Copperheads – They’re Everywhere!

The following note is from the C&O Canal NHP Safety Officer, John Adams. Copperhead sightings and bites have been on the increase this year in Maryland. With a little care the risk can be minimized.  Please read it carefully and heed the safety cautions; especially how to respond to a bite. If you encounter any copperheads (without getting bitten) on your level, let me know and I will inform the park so they can track the areas where copperheads are active. – LWC

The park had a lot of juvenile copperhead snakes in the Palisades Maintenance yard about two years ago and had to hire a pest removal company. This year, a bunch of juvenile copperhead snakes have taken over the mule barn (white garage building by E-House/Ranger Station) at Palisades.  I’ve also been told we have copperhead snakes at the downstream end of Paw Paw Tunnel and I saw approximately five last week in the canal prism to confirm.  Over the past two years, we’ve had several visitors that were bitten by copperhead snakes near the river and on the Billy Goat Trail.

First thing first.  Copperhead snakes are a natural predator and are not to be killed.  They do serve a purpose in getting rid of mice and other small rodents.   Did you know that the white footed mice are the only documented source of Lyme Disease?  The deer tick bites the mouse and acquires the virus and then transmits the virus to humans. So snakes are helpful.  They also eat birds, lizards, other snakes, frogs, and some large insects.

Snakes are looking for two things – shelter and food.  If you take away the food and other items that attract mice, the snakes will leave also.  Also, if you get rid of openings and small spaces for snakes to enter and hide in, they will also find another place to dwell.

Copperhead snakes account for most of the venomous snake bites in the US and bites usually occur when they are stepped on or a person decides to try and pick one up.  You have probably stepped over or passed by countless copperhead snakes in your lifetime and never knew it.  Their first line of defense is to be camouflaged and this works best when they remain still.

If a snake feels threatened, they will bite and you could be injected with venom.  The venom will not typically kill a healthy adult human but it is very painful and can cause serious damage to skin, muscle, and bone tissue.

Prevention is the key.   Avoid areas where copperhead snakes have been sighted.  If you must work in these areas, make sure you have adequate lighting to see all areas and never ever reach into an unknown area or step into an unexplored area.  Use a long pole or rake to clear debris and use extreme caution when picking up items.  Move items cautiously and ensure no snakes are hidden under, behind, or inside objects.  Boots and heavy leather gloves can help minimize bites but may not prevent them.  If you find a snake, you have options.  You can leave the area and call for assistance.  You can allow the snake to escape from the area and go on it’s way.  If you feel comfortable working around snakes, you can relocate them to a wilderness area by picking them up using a long handled flat shovel, rake, snake tongs or other long object.  Use extreme caution and never handle a snake with your hands.

If you are bitten by a snake, this is an emergency condition.

  1. Immediately notify Dispatch (866-677-6677).  You can also notify 911.
  2. Clean the bite area with generous amounts of soap and water.  If water is not available, use an alcohol wipe or antibiotic to clean area.
  3. IMPORTANT:  Remove any rings, jewelry or other items that will bind your your body.  The area will begin to swell quickly and it needs to be free to do so.
  4. Stay calm and wait for transport to the hospital.
  5. Do NOT cut open the wound and try to “suck” out the venom.  It doesn’t work and you will simply make a bad situation even worse.
  6. Do NOT apply ice or tourniquet.  They can cause more damage.
  7. Hospitals in our area do not need to know the snake species so do NOT try to capture the snake and risk getting bit again.  If needed, hospitals will treat all venomous snake bites in our area with the same anti-venom.

As for snake repellents, none have been proven to be effective and appear to be a waste of money and time.  The key is to safely remove the food and shelter and the snakes will move on.

If you see copperhead snakes, please record a description of the area and the date and time.  

Above – Young copperhead on the towpath at Seneca, Level 10, May 30, 2009

Below – Copperhead watching surroundings, and head detail. I warned visitors until it departed the towpath. Many visitors were unaware what it was and didn’t realize it was poisonous; a couple people wanted to pick it up.