Is It a Rat Snake, Chicken Snake, or a Copperhead?

If you live in an area where copperhead snakes can be found, you need to educate yourself on how to recognize one.
If you live in an area where copperhead snakes can be found, you need to educate yourself on how to recognize one. | Source

In my area of Texas, we have both rat snakes (also called chicken snakes) and copperheads. There are times when it is hard to tell: Is it a rat snake or a copperhead?

Living in balance with nature can offer some challenges. Here, we try not to kill snakes unless they are a threat to us or our livestock. Snakes are a great help in dealing with rats and mice, and they've provided the material for many of our homeschool lessons!

Often people kill snakes for no real reason except ignorance and fear. This isn't good because snakes provide a valuable service to the homesteader by keeping small rodents in check. A large snake lives under our barn, and I have not seen a mouse there in awhile. We do try to discourage snakes around the chicken coop because the snakes love those fresh eggs as much as we do. If we go for a few days without seeing an egg, then we know we have a reptilian visitor.

It is startling to walk into the chicken coop and come face to face with a large rat snake, especially since they often look very much like a dangerous copperhead. How does one recognize which is which?

Differences Between Rat Snakes (AKA Chicken Snakes) and Copperheads

Key differences between rat snakes and copperheads.
Key differences between rat snakes and copperheads.
Rat Snake
Copperhead
Non-Venomous
Venomous
Duller colors
Brighter colors
Less distinct markings
Distinct hour-glass markings
Round pupils
Slitlike pupils
Bite lacks fang marks
Bite leaves fang marks
Grow four to six feet long
Grow two to three feet long
Can climb
Cannot climb—if you see a snake hanging in the rafters, it is not a copperhead

Rat Snakes: Beneficial Friends

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Adult Texas rat snakes look like copperheads but are not poisonous.Notice that the markings are not shaped like hourglasses. Rat snakes can climb, unlike copperheads.
Adult Texas rat snakes look like copperheads but are not poisonous.
Adult Texas rat snakes look like copperheads but are not poisonous.
Notice that the markings are not shaped like hourglasses.
Notice that the markings are not shaped like hourglasses. | Source
Rat snakes can climb, unlike copperheads.
Rat snakes can climb, unlike copperheads. | Source

Rat snakes go by many names. In our area, they are called Texas rat snakes; they are also called chicken snakes because they are often found near chicken coops. Normally the rat snake will be dining on the rats and mice that thrive on the grain that is so plentiful in the chicken yard, but sometimes they will eat the eggs as well.

These snakes are proficient climbers. One afternoon I went into the chicken coop, intent on cleaning the nesting boxes, and came literally face to face with a large adult rat snake hanging from the low rafters of our small hen house. I backed smoothly away, hoping that the snake would not get startled and bite me.

Rat snakes are not poisonous. They will bite when they feel threatened, and the bite looks very much like a human bite on the skin. It lacks the two distinct fang marks of a poisonous snake. While the bite hurts, it is not going to make you sick. Just wash the area carefully with soap and water and watch for signs of infection as you would with any other wound.

Texas rat snakes are one of the largest snakes found in my area, often reaching lengths over six feet. The background color of an adult will range from yellow to orange to brown, and it has tan or brown blotches on it, which makes it look similar to a copperhead. However, the markings are not in distinct hourglass shapes like those of the copperhead.

The rat snake will sometimes even rattle its tail, emulating a rattlesnake. This similarity is good for the snake in some ways because predators naturally shy away from it. However, the similarity harms the snake in populated areas, where people often don't stop to analyze which of the two it is before killing it.

A rat snake has round pupils, unlike the elliptical "cat's eye" pupils of the copperhead. Its head is oval, and the colors are slightly duller.

Copperhead Snake, Dangerous Foe

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The markings on a copperhead are very distinct and shaped like hourglasses.A copperhead snake has a wedge-shaped head.Another look at the copperhead's hourglass markings.
The markings on a copperhead are very distinct and shaped like hourglasses.
The markings on a copperhead are very distinct and shaped like hourglasses. | Source
A copperhead snake has a wedge-shaped head.
A copperhead snake has a wedge-shaped head. | Source
Another look at the copperhead's hourglass markings.
Another look at the copperhead's hourglass markings. | Source

There are several subspecies of copperheads, but the one most easily confused with the beneficial rat snake is the southern copperhead.

These snakes live in partially wooded areas near sources of water, such as a stock tank or creek. You will most likely encounter them under debris, decaying leaves, and rotting stumps. On the homestead, watch out for them if you are dealing with brush piles or woodpiles.

The southern copperhead grows to a length of about 36 inches. Its color is a pinkish tan background with darker hourglass blotches across its back. It is nocturnal in the heat of summer but becomes more active in the daytime as the temperatures cool during the autumn months. This snake is one of the most abundant poisonous snakes in my area of North Texas. There have been few deaths reported from the bite of a southern copperhead, but if you are bitten, it is important to seek medical care immediately. The bite mark will have two punctures from the fangs—this is how you can identify the bite as venomous.

Like rat snakes, copperheads eat rats, mice, and other small rodents. These benefits notwithstanding, the danger of the copperhead's bite makes it important to me to keep the species away from the areas where my children play. If possible, we catch the snakes and relocate them. However, we will kill them if need be. Keeping areas of brush and trash away from the house and yard will help discourage these snakes. Seal up openings in foundations and around pipes, so that snakes (of any kind) cannot get into the house.

A copperhead will not climb like a rat snake will, so this is another way to tell the difference between the two. If you see a snake above your head, it won't be a copperhead.

Not that you will hang around to test the theory, right?

Close-up of a copperhead. Notice the slit-shaped pupils.
Close-up of a copperhead. Notice the slit-shaped pupils. | Source

How to Discourage Snakes from Your Yard

The other day, I was writing, and my youngest children came running in to tell me there was a snake coiled by the goat barn. I sent my 15-year-old out to investigate.

He was sure it was an adult copperhead and asked for permission to kill it. I really don't like killing anything, so I went out to have a look myself. I looked at it, but thought it was a Rat Snake and told him to let it go. I took some pictures to use for our nature notebooks. My son let me know he thought I was nuts but did as I asked.

When I loaded the pictures on the computer (the ones above), I immediately saw that he had been correct in his identification, and I had been too interested in getting back to my writing! I had to apologize and say those words dreaded by parents everywhere: "Son, I was wrong, and you were right. I am sorry."

The best way to discourage snakes from venturing close to your home is to get rid of their preferred shelters and food as much as possible. Store wood at least 18 inches off the ground. Keep the rodent population down by use of traps.

Since those precautions are not a guarantee that a copperhead won't venture into your yard, it is important to teach your children to be cautious around any snake they see. They should back away from it smoothly and as quickly as they can. Use gloves and boots when working with brush and woodpiles, and be alert for movement. Snakes will normally avoid human contact if they can, but you might come across one in a bad mood.

Apparently marigolds are natural deterrents for snakes, so you might think about planting them in areas that you would like the snakes to stay away from.

Try to be selective in which snakes you kill. By allowing snakes to share your environment, you can benefit from the natural pest control they provide.

Can You Identify a Copperhead?

Identify Poisonous Snakes Quickly

A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides)
A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides)

An easy to use guide to dangerous snakes, bugs, and plants a for easy identification of anything whether you are hiking or at home.

 

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Comments 86 comments

AvineshP profile image

AvineshP 2 years ago from Chandigarh

Marye Audet, I am glad that I read this hub. It surely gives some crucial information about the snakes. Not many people are aware of the types of snakes.

Really appreciate the effort and looking forward to read such hubs in the near future.


Stormy1 3 years ago

Thank you for your reminder about the copperhead. Now I need to know more about rattlesnakes. I am told that I live on the border of where they begin to live. Need to keep them away from my beautiful greyhounds who are gentle creatures. I did use snake away and also lime for the past two years. Did not see any critters, but I could have been lucky. The copperhead killed my greyhound back in 2010. The fang marks were on the bottom of his foot. He died very quickly, but swelled up like a balloon. I cried for weeks. I live on the edge of a state park. Danger never seems to be far. We do not mind the black snakes and the eastern king snakes, milk snakes, corn snakes, ring neck snakes and garter snakes that are around. But since my dog got bit, I can hardly bring myself to walk in the fields and the forest that I used to love being in. I worry about being out there and getting bitten and not being able to get home in time for help for me or the dogs. Once while I was at work, a black snake came in the house that my son left open. We never found that guy. I was told that even if a snake is not poisonous, that one could get salminela from them and be hospitalized. I may try the marigold thing around the dogs fenced in area as well. Wish me well as my spouse will never leave this place that he loves.


Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet 3 years ago from Lancaster, Texas Author

Bettina... I love Frisco... but I didn't know they let snakes in the town... LOL! Glad the article helped.


Bettina Restrepo profile image

Bettina Restrepo 3 years ago

Thanks for the article. Our subdivision was having quite the Facebook conversion on the subject and your article was cited.

The original post on our thread (Frisco, Texas) thought the pool area was being invaded by Copperheads. A few years back, 3-4ft rat snake crawled out of my garden. After causing a huge scene, I was informed by Hubbie that it was "just a rat snake". Still scary - but he left to find better feeding grounds.

I like the Marigold idea.


Stormy1 4 years ago

Thank you for your reply. It has been most helpful. I can really see the difference between the rat snake and the copperhead. especially the bite description tells a lot, between the difference in the eyes and markings.


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    Marye Audet profile image

    Marye Audet4,737 Followers
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    Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.



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