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Our venomous snakes

Pennsylvania is home to three venomous snakes: the timber rattlesnake, the copperhead, and the endangered eastern massasauga.

The first two inhabit our area. The range of the rattlesnake basically follows the line of mountain ridges that course through our state.The copperhead also ranges in that area but extends into southeastern Pennsylvania as well.Both prefer south facing rocky hillsides and the copperhead is often near water.Both of these snakes are more readily found in spring and fall when they venture out of their shelter to bask on a rock "soaking up sunshine."Remember that all snakes are coldblooded. These animals are unable to regulate their own body temperature and use the sun to warm themselves so they function effectively.The timber rattlesnake is found in two color phases: black, the most common, and yellow.Rattlesnakes add a new rattle each time they shed their skin which allows them to grow.You can't age a rattlesnake by its rattles because they could shed four times a year. Thus a "rattler" with 15 rattles is most likely not 15 years old.A mature rattlesnake may reach 4½ feet and is one of the largest Pennsylvania snakes.The copperhead isn't as large as the "rattler," reaching nearly 3 feet.They, like the rattlesnake have a roughly triangular shaped head, but the head of a copperhead is indeed copper colored.Sometimes the milk snake is mistaken for a copperhead. The milk snake has a more rounded head, thinner in girth, and no copper-colored head.In my years of teaching science, I had at least three students deliver to my room a "copperhead their Pappy or dad" had killed.In each instance the snake was the very beneficial hapless milk snake.The copperhead in this photo was almost completely covered in leaves a few feet from my feet. It allowed me to gently remove the leaves with a short stick, never moving a "muscle."Neither copperheads nor rattlesnakes lay eggs. Essentially the young develop in an internal egg (unlike a mammal developing in the uterus) before the female bears them alive. About 15 young is the norm for both species.Both the copperhead and rattlesnake are pit vipers. They use their pit (located between the nostril and eye) to sense heat. This helps explain why their potential prey is usually warmblooded small mammals such as mice, shrews or chipmunks. Fishermen who frequent places like Mud Run or Stony Creek know that wearing hip boots and loose fitting long-sleeve shirts helps to reduce the chance of being bitten.However, slipping on the stony stream side and catching their balance with a bare hand would be the snake's possible striking point. Both of these species inject their prey with poison through their twin hollow fangs in the roof of their mouths.Please remember that most snakes would choose to flee rather than to strike.Many outdoorsmen/women have probably passed within feet of one of these pit vipers and probably were never aware of their presence. Both the copperhead and rattlesnake should be respected, yet left alone to do their part in controlling rodent pests. Remember, get out there and see what nature has to offer.Test your knowledge: Which of these summer resident birds migrates the farthest to their wintering areas? A. Robin B. Barn Swallow C. catbird D. Baltimore orioleLast week's answer: C. Well over 200 species of birds have been recorded in Carbon CountyQuestions/comments? Email


Copperhead snake
Timber rattlesnake