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Copperheads vs. North Georgia Water Snakes

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Well it’s that time of year again. Snakes are out and about and in all the places we like to go on a hot summer day. Last week we got down to the river twice and we saw eight snakes across those two trips. Needless to say, now is probably a good time for a helpful refresher on North Georgia’s infamous Copperhead and by default, it’s friendlier counterparts, the Banded water snake and the Northern water snake. 

While they both look similar at first glance, there are some important traits that help distinguish the copperhead from a typical North Georgia water snake. Today we’ll share some of those differences in hopes that you’ll be better able to recognize and identify each species when you see them. 

Please note, this information is not to help you decide which one to kill and which one to let live. Our strong recommendation is to let each species live and then depending on which snake you’ve identified to take certain precautions.

Obviously if you have a copperhead living around your house and you have children or pets, you may need to think through your options, but by and large, most snakes, particularly the non-venomous ones are more helpful than harmful. 

Growing up my grandma ingrained in me that “a good snake is a dead snake”. While I’m still nervous around them, that philosophy does way more harm than good. Georgia has forty-five species of snakes and only six are venomous. 

Most snakes, even including the venomous ones, play integral roles in our ecosystems. Many snakes for example, like the Black Rat, eat venomous snakes, rodents, and other household insects. If you have a black snake living around your house, odds are your house is a super safe place, even from more dangerous venomous snakes.

BROWN Water Snake

So let’s talk about the danger level of running across Copperheads and the typical North Georgia water snake.

We’ll start with Copperheads. They are classified as venomous snakes. They’re known to be fairly aggressive and typically give no warning signs before striking. Bottom line, if they feel threatened they will strike. Because of this, they typically bite more people in a year than any other snake. However, their venom isn’t as potent as other species. While getting bit will no doubt hurt, the bite usually isn’t fatal. 

The Banded water snake and Northern water snake however are non-venomous snakes. It doesn’t mean they won’t strike or bite, but they are far less aggressive than their similar looking counterparts. 

Copperhead

The real issue between both species of snakes is how they look so similar to each other. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been at the river and heard someone yell “Copperhead” only for it to turn out to be a friendly water snake, I’d be rich. Real rich. 

It’s completely understandable as their colors are almost identical depending on their age. You add in where they are often spotted – on the ground camouflaged or at water’s edge on rocks – and it’s not hard to see how they get confused for each other. 

The North Georgia water snakes that we most often come across are the Banded and Northern. Both have bands that are widest on the top and look borderline symmetrical while the Copperhead’s pattern and band is narrowest on top and looks more like an hourglass. While that can sometimes be hard to spot in the heat of the moment, taking a few extra seconds to get a good look (from a safe distance) can often help you pick out this key differentiating factor. 

There are other species of water snakes in the Southeast, like the  Brown water snake for example. In that species, their bands don’t connect or wrap all the around. Instead they are broken or split across the top. 

So if you can get a good solid look at the bands and how they are connected and where they are narrowest or thickest at, odds are you will be able to correctly identify whether that snake is a threat or not.

NORTHERN Water Snake

There are other ways to distinguish which species of snake is which beyond their band and patterns, although it does get a little harder.

First, you can look at the shape of their heads. Copperheads, along with most venomous snakes, have a triangle shaped head. While the water snakes in North Georgia have a head that is in line with their body and more narrow, straight and slightly rounded. Although the brown water snake is an exception to this rule. 

Secondly, their eyes often tell the story. While it’s virtually impossible to use this method without getting too close, venomous snakes including copperheads have eyes that look like a cat with a slit pupil while non-venomous snakes including North Georgia water snakes have round pupils. 

Finally, you can also identify them by how they swim. While both species are great swimmers, copperheads swim on top of the water with their head elevated and will rarely go completely under the water. Water snakes, on the other hand, do not swim high on the water and their head is not elevated. When water snakes are threatened while swimming, they will almost always try to get away by diving underneath the water.

BROWN WATER SNAKE

COPPERHEAD

While this is not an exhaustive list, we hope it gives you a few basic tips on how to better identify snakes in the wild. Again, the best and easiest way to identify if it’s a coppperhead or common water snake is to look for the markings. But when in doubt, always maintain your space and proceed with caution. 

We encourage everyone to check out the good work of our friends at the Orianne Society. There a nationally recognized reptile and amphibian conservation group based right here in North Georgia just a few miles from the shop.

We donate 1% of every sale, every day to local Rabun County non-profits. The Orianne Society was our chosen non-profit for the months of January-March. Because of your support of our small business we were able to raise $3,400 for their mission.  

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