Hiking on Morris County’s Wildcat Ridge, I clambered up a slope with Matt, my 12-year-old son. A rocky formation drew my interest. “We might find snakes there,” I suggested.
Matt peered into a cavity between boulders. “They’re here!” he exclaimed. I joined him to get a look. We stood over a shimmering cluster of copperheads that didn’t seem frightened and displayed no aggression. While bold, coppery bands absorbed my attention, Matt counted. “Sixteen,” he said.
There’s no telling how many copperheads inhabit New Jersey’s wild areas. “Estimating population sizes for snakes is virtually impossible because of their elusive nature,” says Kris Schantz, principal zoologist for the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program.
The copperhead is one of two venomous snakes found in New Jersey. They and the timber rattlesnake produce a toxin that travels the circulatory system and slowly digests tissues and organs. “No one in New Jersey has died from a snake bite in the past 100 years,” says Schantz. “I can’t account for Colonial times.”
During the past 20 years, only four copperhead bites have been confirmed, as well as four timber-rattlesnake bites to humans—and two to dogs.
Copperheads in New Jersey can grow as large as 40–42 inches long, according to Schantz. They prey upon amphibians, insects and small rodents. Adult copperheads also eat small birds. In turn, copperheads are preyed upon by hawks, owls, bears, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums and skunks. Bobcats likely eat them as well. Northern black racer snakes take juveniles.
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As for timber rattlesnakes, Schantz calls them “the meanderers of the woods, one of the reasons I love them.” She has hiked many miles in her efforts to protect snakes, especially the endangered rattlesnakes. She reports that they are reclusive creatures unlikely to shake their tails. “I always tell people at my presentations that it’s almost as if they know they’re tough, and they don’t need to show it,” she says.
Copperheads are listed as a species of special concern in New Jersey, which means they would become threatened by “continued or further habitat degradation or modification,” Schantz says. They may be found, along with rattlesnakes, in the state’s highest mountains of Morris, Warren, Sussex, Passaic and Bergen counties, but their range also includes Somerset, Hunterdon, Mercer and Union counties. (Matt photographed one on the talus slopes of Kittatiny Ridge in Sussex County.) In southern New Jersey, timber rattlesnakes den along stream and wetland embankments in Ocean, Atlantic and Burlington counties. During summer, some of them disperse into Camden County.
If you encounter a venomous snake, allow space; a snake won’t attack unless you get very close. “Don’t step over logs or large rocks without looking to the other side,” Schantz advises, “and wear closed-toe shoes.” Warning signs in some New Jersey state parks and forests announce the presence of venomous snakes.
Copperheads and timber rattlesnakes are den dwellers, but they don’t breed there. “The snakes are out and about,” says Schantz. “Males seek out females; females hang out and eat. A male picks up a receptive female’s hormonal scent. He scent-trails to her and will combat other suitors. It’s just a shoving match.”
Schantz refers to the dens of northern timber rattlesnakes, large or small, as ancestral. Their dens are probably thousands of years old. The fidelity of the northern timber rattlesnake to its own den means its greatest threat is den destruction. Rattlesnake researcher Howard Reinert of the College of New Jersey has found northern timber rattlesnakes freezing to death outside dens not their own, says Schantz.
After finding the snakes at Wildcat Ridge, Matt declared, “I’m in heaven.” In fact, he could have been almost anywhere in rural New Jersey.Click here to leave a comment