Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife Route 135 Westborough, ma 01581 Phone: (508) 389-6360/Fax: (508) 389-7891



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Commonwealth of Massachusetts 

Division of Fisheries & Wildlife 

Route 135 

Westborough, MA  01581 

Phone: (508) 389-6360/Fax: (508) 389-7891 

www.nhesp.org 

Copperhead 

(Agkistrodon contortrix) 

State Status: Endangered 

Federal Status: None 

DESCRIPTION:  Copperheads get their name due to their solid, 

relatively unmarked, coppery-colored head resembling the color of an 

old copper coin.  As with all pit vipers, Copperheads have broad, 

triangularly shaped heads, with a distinct narrowing just behind the 

head.  The eyes have vertically elliptical (catlike) pupils.  There is a 

very thin line on each side of the face that separates the richer copper 

color of the top of the head from the lighter color of the lip area.  The 

iris of the eye is pale gold, and the pupil is dark. On the body there is 

a series of dark brown to reddish, hourglass-shaped, cross bands.  

These are narrow in the middle of the body and broad to the sides.  The 

ground color ranges from beige to tan.  Body markings are continuous 

over the entire length of the body, including the tail.  Young snakes are 

replicas of adults, except that the body has an overtone of light grey and the tip of the tail is 

yellow. 


Adult Copperheads usually measure 60–90 cm (24–36 inches) in length; the newborn young are 

usually 18–23 cm (7–9 inches).  Males usually have longer tails, but females can grow to greater 

total lengths (up to 4 ft.).  There is no reliable external cue to differentiate the sexes.  The 

Copperhead has weakly keeled scales (i.e., a ridge protrudes from the middle of each scale), 

giving the snake a relatively rough-skinned appearance. 

SIMILAR SPECIES IN MASSACHUSETTS:  The Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is 

the only other pit viper in Massachusetts, but is generally yellow or brown with black, brown, or 

rust-colored blotches separated by crossbands rather than the hourglass pattern of the 

Copperhead.  The Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) may exhibit similar coloration, 

but the markings are in blotches and spots rather than the distinctive hourglass pattern.  Its body 

and head are considerably thinner than those of the Copperhead and the pupils are round, as they 

are in all of our non-venomous species.  The Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) has a 

similar coloration and markings, but has a thinner, dark-colored head and is rarely encountered 

far from water. 

RANGE AND HABITAT IN MASSACHUSETTS:  The range of the Copperhead is from 

southern New England to southwest Illinois, south to central Georgia and through central North 

Carolina. 

DeGraaf, R. M., and Rudis, D.D. 1983 

Amphibians and Reptiles of New England. 

Amherst, Massachusetts: The University of 

Massachusetts. 


In Massachusetts, the Copperhead is usually associated with deciduous forest and shows a 

preference for traprock (basalt) ledges with extensive rock slides below.  The Copperhead is a 

relative of the Eastern Cottonmouth and, like that species, is fond of moist, damp habitats.  Many 

copperhead wintering dens are on the fringes of swamps, reservoirs, rivers, and streams. The 

entrances to the hibernacula (dens) have southern, southeastern, or southwestern exposures, 

allowing the Copperhead to sun itself in the spring and fall. The rock slides generally are 

interspersed with deciduous trees, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), poison ivy 

(Toxicodendron spp.), lichens, and damp leaf litter.  Stands of red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), 

pine (Pinus spp.), and hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), along with cool, damp meadows, are 

characteristic of Copperhead habitat in Massachusetts.  

Distribution in Massachusetts 

1982-2007 

Based on records in Natural Heritage Database 

The summering grounds of the Copperhead are near wetlands, wooded swamps and marshes, or 

lakes and reservoirs.  During this time, this species may also inhabit fields and meadows, wet 

woodlands, and quarries. 



LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:  Copperheads belong to the family of snakes known as pit 

vipers.  Like other reptiles, they are vertebrates (they have backbones) and they are ectothermic 

(they cannot control their body heat by physiological means and must move to a warmer or 

cooler environment to control their body temperature).  The term “pit viper” derives from the 

characteristic loreal pits.  There is one pit on each side of the head, lying midway between the 

nostril and eye but below their level.  Each pit contains sensitive nerve ends that react to radiant 

heat.  The primary function of these sensory units is to assist the snake in detecting warm-

blooded prey in darkness.  Sight is fairly keen within a limited range; moving objects are 

perceived more readily than stationary ones. 

The Copperhead is extremely sensitive to ground vibrations and can detect very slight ground 

disturbances.  These vibrations are transmitted to the auditory nerve through the bones of the 

lower jaw.  Its tongue is not a stinger, but rather a very delicate organ associated with a pair of 

cavities, known as Jacobson’s organ, located in the roof of the mouth.  The tongue reaches out 

and brings in particles from the air.  The Jacobson’s organ appears to be directly related to the 

nasal system and aids in smelling; however, each system can be used independently as well as 

together. 



This species has two well-developed and enlarged venom-conducting fangs, located at the front 

of the mouth and secured to the upper jawbone.  The fangs are movable and fold against the roof 

of the mouth when not in use.  A fleshy sheath covers each fang when the mouth is closed.  The 

fangs are not permanent; they are shed periodically. Each fang socket has several replacement 

fangs in various stages of development, located in the gum behind the functional fang.  Before a 

fang is shed, a new one is already positioned. Each fang is connected internally to a venom 

gland. Through muscular action, venom is forced from the gland through a venom duct to the 

hollow fang and then into prey. Like most snakes, Cooperhead will also bite in defense. 

Although the Cooperhead is venomous and the bite can be painful, it is not considered life-

threatening to a healthy human.  In addition to these enlarged fangs, pit vipers have many curved 

smaller teeth on the palate and lower jaw. 

In Massachusetts, the active season of the Copperhead runs from April to October.  Beginning in 

mid-April, the Copperhead emerges from hibernation and begins basking on ledges during the 

day. It lingers in the area for several weeks.  The Copperhead can be found sunning itself 

regularly, often in the same spot, with other Copperheads or other snake species nearby.   

Copperheads are known to mate both in the spring and autumn.  Males seem to be particularly 

active during courtship and have been observed in aggressive encounters with other males over 

territory during the spring and autumn mating seasons.  Males are able to track females by 

sensing with their tongues the female’s pheromones wafting through the air.  Courting males will 

approach a female and begin moving his chin on the ground.  If the female moves away, the male 

will follow and attempt to move alongside and place his head on some part of her body.  The 

female responds with a series of tail movements: slow back-and-forth waving, rapid back-and-

forth whipping, or extremely rapid tail vibration.  The male will continue to rub his chin on the 

back and head of the female as he moves to align his body next to hers.  This process may 

continue for an hour or more if the female does not respond. If the female is ready to mate, she 

will lift the rear part of her body and tail off the ground slightly allowing the male to maneuver 

his tail around and under hers.  The duration of actual mating varies from 3 1/2 to 8 1/2 hours.  

This lengthy mating serves several important functions.  Since females mate with only one male 

at a time, a long mating lessens the number of other males that could possibly mate with her.  

Also, the female’s interest in mating may be reduced after prolonged mating.  Males begin 

searching for new females within 24 hours. 

After spring mating, most of the males and at least some of the females begin to migrate up to 

two miles from the den site.  During the height of the summer, they are generally found in 

wetlands—wooded swamps and marshes—or lakes and reservoirs or may inhabit fields and 

meadows, wet woodlands, and quarries. 

Females giving birth late in the season tend to gather together in areas called birthing rookeries, 

which may be at their winter dens or sometimes up to a mile away.  Lingering at or near the den, 

to which the newborn young must return shortly after birth, eliminates the need for a long and 

presumably dangerous migration of the newborn that would arise if she had migrated some 

distance away.   



The male and female Copperheads reach sexual maturity at five years with an estimated life span 

of 18 years. Breeding typically takes place in the spring (April-May) but may also occur from 

August to September.  The gestation period is 3-9 months.  The Copperhead is ovoviviparous 

(their young are born alive).  Three to ten young (normally 4-6), measuring 18-23 cm (7-9 

inches) in length, are born sometime in August or September. The mother does not care for her 

young.  Each of the young is equipped with venom, fangs, and a supply of egg yolk for 

nourishment in their abdominal cavities.  In addition, the young Copperhead has a unique yellow 

tail tip which fades as it gets older and is usually gone by their third or fourth year. The belief is 

that the young snake wiggles its tail as a sort of lure to frogs or insects that might be looking for 

small, caterpillar-like prey.  When the animal gets close enough, the Copperhead can strike out 

and thus acquire its meal.   

The diet of young Copperheads differs from that of the adult, probably reducing the competition 

between them.  Juveniles rely heavily on a large supply of insects, particularly caterpillars, for 

survival, while adults feed mostly on amphibians and mammals. Mice are the principal food, but 

small birds, frogs, and insects also are eaten.  It is believed that a Copperhead eats only about 

eight meals in a single growing season (totaling no more than 200% of its body weight).  This 

may be due to a combination of a slow metabolism and the difficulty of finding prey.  Females 

who are carrying young may not eat at all during the summer due to the growing embryos that 

take up a large volume of the body cavity.   

During the spring and autumn,  Copperheads hunt mainly by day as night temperatures are too 

low for normal activity.  As the weather warms in the early summer, the Copperhead changes its 

diurnal hunting to nocturnal activity.  This change has several advantages: the snake avoids the 

intense heat of the day, and the possibility of capturing prey is considerably better because 

rodents and amphibians are more active at night. 

The typical hunting behavior of the Copperhead consists of long periods of lying motionless 

waiting to ambush prey with intervals of prowling.  Copperheads waiting in ambush coil their 

bodies next to a fallen log and rest their heads or chin on the edge.  The prey is detected by sight, 

scent, and the sensory pit which can detect the heat radiating from a warm-blooded animal.  Thus 

guided, the snake strikes out at its prey and sinks its venom-conducting fangs into the prey.  

Usually it then recoils and waits for the venom to overcome the victim.  After a strike, the 

Copperhead uses its sense of smell to track the victim. The length of time before the prey dies 

depends largely on the size and kind of prey and the amount of venom injected.  The venom 

serves two important functions.  In addition to being the killing agent, it contains enzymes that 

break down the victim’s body tissue and aid in digestion.  

The use of the venom as a defensive weapon is secondary.  Copperheads’ defensive actions are 

largely determined by the degree of intrusion and the accessibility of a refuge.  A snake will 

resort to striking and biting only as a last resort—generally only when it has been cut off from 

retreat or when actually seized.  Even when pushed to the limit, venomous snakes rarely use their 

poison to the fullest extent.  The Copperhead is not boldly aggressive. In the field, this species 

usually lies motionless and rarely attempts to escape by rapid movement.  



POPULATION STATUS IN MASSACHUSETTS:  The Copperhead is listed as an 

Endangered species in Massachusetts under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA), 

because of its rarity and declining population, and is protected by law. Copperheads have been 

documented in Massachusetts only in the Connecticut River Valley and the Boston area in the 

past 25 years.  Destruction of rocky, wooded habitat and summer feeding grounds, excessive 

removal by collectors, and mortality at the hands of snake hunters and the general public imperil 

the Copperhead.  Its dependence on traditional den sites (used for many years, perhaps 

indefinitely) makes this species particularly vulnerable to exploitation by humans.   



MANAGEMENT RECOMMENDATIONS:  If it were not for the existence of public 

conservation lands (national and state parks, national forests, state forest preserves) and of 

privately owned nature preserves, much of the remaining habitat of the Copperhead would have 

been destroyed.  Thus, taking steps to increase public land holdings in prime Copperhead 

habitats through a variety of purchase or conservation easement mechanisms is an important 

conservation strategy for this species.  In addition to land protection, management 

recommendations to safeguard known populations would include the following: 

1.   Protecting Copperheads at their known denning colonies through vigilance; 

2.   Maintaining a level of secrecy  regarding  the localities of den sites; 

3.   Avoiding behavioral disturbance of the snakes by restricting  access to den and birthing 

rookery areas; 

4.   Patrolling the area during vulnerable times, particularly (a) the spring emergence period 

and (b) the summer gestating and birthing periods; 

5.   Limiting logging within Copperhead habitat to the winter months; 

6.   Educating the public with biologically accurate information and working with local 

residents to promote understanding of the Copperhead as a beneficial native species of 

the deciduous forest community. 

Due to the location of preferred habitat, the denning sites are rarely affected by construction-type 

development, but the Copperhead is put at risk by construction and development nearby.  Roads, 

even in state forests and parks, also place this species at risk due to mortality in crossing.  

The Copperhead is one of two snake species (the other being the Timber Rattlesnake) that is 

significantly affected by direct intentional persecution; they are killed out of a deep-rooted 

sociological fear.  Too frequently, a Copperhead coiled quietly in its natural habitat is a target of 

wanton killing. This species is currently listed as an Endangered species in Massachusetts and is 

protected under law.  Educating the public about the Copperhead and the laws protecting it is 

critical to the long-term survival of the species.   



SELECTED REFERENCES 

Conant, R., and J. T. Collins. 1991. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians—Eastern and 



Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 

DeGraaf, R. M., and D. D. Rudis. 1986.  New England Wildlife: Habitat, Natural History, and 

Distribution. General Technical Report NE-108. Broomall, Pennsylvania: U.S. Department of 

Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station.  

Petersen, R. C., and R. W. Fritsch, II. 1986.  Connecticut’s Venomous Snakes: The Timber 

Rattlesnake and Copperhead. Bulletin 111, State Geological and Natural History Survey of 

Connecticut. Hartford, Connecticut: Department of Environmental Protection.  

Tyning, T. F. 1990. A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.  

Updated June 2007 




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