Copperhead or milk snake or rat snake?


Last week my wife informed me she had seen the first big black rat snake of the year stretched across the road in front of our house.

“What are you going to do about it?” she asked/demanded.

I answered as I always do: “Nothing. I’m not about to kill a snake simply because it has the audacity to breathe the same air we do.” And then I launched into my standard “defense of snakes” lecture.

Nonpoisonous snakes are harmless. They eat mice, rats and chipmunks. Having them near the house is a good thing. In fact, I place pieces of sheet metal and plywood lying strategically, but inconspicuously, on the edges of the yard as snake habitat.

When I peek under this cover, I usually find at least one beautiful little ringneck snake, juvenile rat snake or young milk snake.

Some people find this shocking. These are the people who kill every snake they find. “The only good snake is a dead snake,” they say with authority.” But those are the voices of ignorance.


Most snakes encountered in a backyard setting are harmless. Garter snakes (seldom longer than 36 inches) can be recognized by three longitudinal stripes that run the length of the body.

Ringneck snakes (up to 20 inches) are charcoal gray with a gorgeous yellow or orange ring around its neck.

Smooth green snakes (up to 22 inches) are bright lime green. They blends in perfectly with lush vegetation, so they often fall victim to lawn mowers. In death, green snakes quickly turn blue as unstable yellow pigments break down leaving only the more stable blue pigments behind.

Black rat (up to seven feet long) and eastern milk snakes (up to four feet) are the most intimidating species that occur in backyards and the only ones whose bite might break the skin.

Poisonous pit vipers such as copperheads and rattlesnakes, have triangular heads, vertical pupils and prominent heat sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils. They are not typically found in backyards.


At a glance, milk snakes and copperheads can be confusing. The basic color of each is rusty brown, but the copperhead has a much richer copper tone.

Furthermore, both species have dark bands that cross over the back and reach down the sides.

The milk snake’s “saddles” are bordered in black and are widest across the back. The copperhead’s saddles, on the other hand, are most narrow on the back and wider on the sides. They have an hourglass shape.

Lastly, a copperhead’s belly is unmarked and cream colored. A milk snake’s white belly is marked with black squares that create a checkerboard effect.

Young rat snakes also have patterns that mimic copperheads, and each year countless rat and milk snakes are unfortunately killed in cases of mistaken identify.

I admit some of the characteristics that distinguish copperheads cannot be seen from a distance. But if you’re close enough to hack a snake with a hoe, you’re close enough to detect a copperhead’s triangular head.

I understand people’s desire to rid their backyards of poisonous copperheads, but I’m certain many of the “copperheads” killed each year are milk snakes and juvenile black rat snakes.


Though the subject of snakes is distasteful to many, here are a few points to ponder as I beg for mercy on snakes’ behalf.

• Most snakes, even poisonous ones, are beneficial. They eat insects, mice, rats, and other small rodents.

• Snakes are normally shy and retiring. Their instinct is to slither away when disturbed, not attack. To avoid accidental encounters with snakes, watch where you place your hands and feet when exploring woods and fields, especially rocky areas.

• Though copperheads are more common and widespread than rattlesnakes, their bite is much less dangerous. That’s because copperheads are smaller, they deliver less venom, and their venom is weaker than rattlesnake venom. I know of only one documented human death caused by a copperhead bite.

• Finally, treat any poisonous snake bite (which can be identified by one, or usually two, puncture wounds) seriously. Keep the victim calm and quiet, and proceed to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


  1. I would think a Ph.D would know the difference between the words “poisonous” and “VENOMOUS”. An injected toxin is VENOM not an ingested poison.

    • I’m unsure of who you are since you didn’t care to leave your name along with your rude comment. But the only place I even noticed the word “venomous” uses in this article Was In the title.. now even a smart ass would know that “venomous” means that something contains venom, which is exactly the way the Ph.D described it! So his article topic, “venomous snakes” is correct sir!

  2. The term “poisonous” was used many times in the article, where it should be “venomous”. The misused term is commonly used, however, and does not materially detract from the otherwise excellent article. But it would be better to correct it rather than perpetuate the practice. :)

    BTW, I have killed a harmless milk snake before I knew the differences, and felt bad about it. But it was under a pile of leaves and could have posed a danger if it had been a copperhead, which are fairly common in this area of central MD.


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