It’s true: copperhead snakes, one of Maryland’s two venomous species, eat cicadas.
Annual cicadas are one of their favorite meals. And now that the Brood X has emerged en masse after 17 years underground, it’s a convenient feast for the serpents, which are camouflaged by a tan-and- brown hourglass pattern, to gorge on.
But experts say people are no more likely to encounter the species than before the rare insects woke up, so don’t expect these vipers to infiltrate Baltimore or its suburbs.
“Their abundance is not going to change,” said professor Richard Seigel, who specializes in the conservation biology of amphibians and reptiles at Towson University. “They’re not going to start moving into people’s yards, playgrounds. There are plenty of cicadas where (copperheads) are in the forests.”
While they’re in every Maryland county save a handful on the Eastern Shore, these pit vipers favor forests and outskirts of agricultural fields abutting them, as well as swamps and their adjacent sandy ridges, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. They like to sun on rocks along creeks and sneak into piles of rotten wood and sawdust, and typically hibernate in rocky outcroppings.
Commonly topping out at about 3 feet, but with a record length of 53 inches in Maryland, they keep a low profile in such settings as far south as Florida and north to Massachusetts, with a territory stretching west to Nebraska, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
“They’re not species you’re typically going to find in your suburban neighborhoods,” said Kevin Barrett, who oversees the reptile and amphibian collection at the Maryland Zoo. The zoo in Baltimore is home to three adult copperheads, all of which have been enjoying the addition of cicadas to their diet.
Insects and, specifically, cicadas, make up anywhere from a third to a half of a copperhead’s diet, Siegel said. But, like many snakes, they also feed on frogs, birds and rodents, according to the Maryland Zoo.
If your property is cluttered with debris where mice might scurry, there’s a chance a copperhead might try its luck there, too, said Scott McDaniel, founder and executive director of the Susquehannock Wildlife Society.
When they hunt, the vipers rely on their camouflage to blend into their surroundings — you’d be lucky to spot one among leaf litter — and use sensors to locate warm-blooded prey. When prey gets close, they strike.
However, copperheads are regarded as docile reptiles, Seigel said. “The two words we always use are shy and retiring.”
The Susquehannock Wildlife Society conducted an experiment to test the viper’s aggression: Experts sought out the snakes for two years and encountered 69. Fifteen snakes fled before they could do the testing. For the others, they mimicked a hiker stepping next to or on it with a boot apparatus. Sometimes, they used a gloved pair of tongs to simulate picking the snake up. Out of 51, just two lashed out — most fled.
“They certainly don’t want to bite you,” said Jonathan McKnight, a biologist with the state natural resources department. “You’re much too large to be good food.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
As of last week, the Maryland Poison Center had documented two copperhead snake bites this year, said Executive Director Bruce Anderson. There were 45 in 2020, 47 in 2019 and 43 in 2018. There were far fewer bites attributed to the only other venomous snake native to Maryland, the more potent Timber Rattlesnake.
Most bites happen when someone steps on a snake or tries to handle it, Seigel said. Though the bites are rarely fatal, they are painful. Copperheads possess hemotoxic venom, which breaks down blood vessels.
If you’re bitten, get medical help promptly, Seigel said. You can call Poison Control at 800-222-1222.
Before that, learn to spot one: Experts said most calls about copperheads are cases of mistaken identity.
With elliptical rather than round pupils, the vipers’ heads are copper-colored — as their name suggests — and wider than their necks. Baby copperheads have a bright green tail resembling a fishing lure, which they use to attract bugs. But the snake’s most distinguishing feature, McDaniel said, are the darker brown markings “we say look like Hershey’s kisses” — wide at the belly and narrower toward the spine.
If someone encounters one near their home, experts suggest leaving it alone and letting it slither away. These snakes are protected under Maryland law, they said.
If it’s not leaving on its own, McDaniel suggested that the snake can be sprayed lightly with a hose. Meanwhile, McKnight pointed out an online directory of permitted nuisance wildlife wranglers who can help in a pinch.
“If you do see a copperhead, all you need to do is walk around it. The snake’s not going to charge you,” Seigel said. “Just leave it alone and it’s going to leave you alone and you’ll both be fine.”