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144 The Mostly Misunderstood Copperhead A copperhead snake really is a beautiful animal, in spite of the panic that arises at the mention of its name. Agkistrodon contortrix displays abstract patterns of tan, pink, gray, copper, and brown when pressed against a pale limestone outcrop. Yet the same snake becomes nearly invisible when nestled against a shady carpet of dry oak leaves. Sadly, fangs designed to envenomate and a sinister reputation generally overrule any appreciation for the reptile’s classy camouflage and instead mark the animal for instant death—a fate generated more by fear than by fact and an ageless attitude toward “serpents” that too often borders on near hysteria. Copperheads, common in the wooded rocky draws and canyons along the tallgrass prairie’s waterways, seek to escape the wrath of all sorts of adversaries by remaining quietly in place and allowing a hardto -detect hide to do the job it was designed for. Those of us who’ve spent a lifetime on foot in copperhead country most likely would be mortified if we knew exactly how many snakes we’ve nearly stepped on. Many bites occur when copperheads actually are stepped on, probably second only to the number of bites inflicted upon amateurs who can’t resist handling poisonous snakes. 145 The Mostly Misunderstood Copperhead Fortunately for these untrained snake handlers, the copperhead’s bite is rarely lethal.On the other hand,I watched a 110-pound dog grow quite ill in a matter of minutes following a single bite on a back leg by a snake so small that it didn’t appear capable of killing a cotton rat,much less ruining the day of a young and healthy Labrador retriever. The dog recovered, but only after two days under the care of a veterinarian with treatment that included expensive doses of antivenin. Some dogs, like some people, never seem to understand that snakes can pack a punch much greater than their mere inches. My black Lab Jack was as lucky as the aforementioned yellow Lab wasn’t. He loved to roam with me along the broken cliffs bordering a prairie stream. It was the epitome of copperhead country—vertical slabs of stone broken by erosion and by gravity, resulting in fissures, overhangs, small caves, and an abundance of eroded rubble, a clutter of both big boulders and small. These rocky breaks provided the communal dens preferred by copperheads , while a mix of oak-hickory woodlands both above and below the bluffs housed snakes galore during spring, summer, and autumn. The woods were crisscrossed by deer trails and carpeted with a thick layer of oak leaf mulch. Copperheads were prevalent along the game trails and, when coiled against leaf patterns including multiple shades of brown and tan,the well-camouflaged snakes were nearly impossible to detect. Both the black Lab and I walked these trails almost every morning , and many times I either inadvertently stepped over copperheads or came within inches of stepping on them. The Lab, often lagging behind, would come upon the snake, sniff, and offer his nose at pointblank range. The copperheads, true to their advertised demeanor, never struck. Almost all simply waited, coiled and motionless, until the nosy dog and his clumsy companion wandered on down the trail before slinking away to a more secluded hideout. Onceasmallcopperhead,pressedbythesniffingblackLab,pulledits head back and tucked it under an oak leaf, desperate for concealment even though at least sixteen to eighteen additional inches remained in plain view. On the other hand, on a couple of warm afternoons I’ve had several snakes strike yet stop short of the mark, sort of a copperhead’s warning shot fired across the bow. The most dramatic encounter involved a beautiful specimen exhibiting rusty red-brown hourglass 146 The Mostly Misunderstood Copperhead bands over a background of pinkish tan. This snake was sunning on the trail following a night of cool rain, and when we came upon it unexpectedly it bolted for the nearby woods, partly elevated, striking out repeatedly to keep us at bay. I don’t believe that this snake ever had any intention of biting anyone—it was simply making a strategic retreat, firing the big guns at every opportunity to keep the advancing army at bay. Copperheads come in several subspecies and color combinations, but essentially all are the same snake with minor environmental adaptations . Sometimes the background color is tan, sometimes pinkish, sometimes brown, sometimes gray. Generally the bands are a deep chestnut to rusty...


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