Black Snake vs. Copperhead vs. Cottonmouth

The three snakes we’ll be examining today have one deadly quality in common: they’re all venomous. These and other similarities — as well as differences — are just a few paragraphs away. After all, it helps to know what you’re dealing with if you encounter a snake.

The North American black snake is not venomous, but Australia’s black snake and Africa’s black mamba are. As for the copperhead and cottonmouth, a bite from the latter is more dangerous. Cottonmouth venom can cause significant harm to humans, while Copperheads are unlikely to cause human fatalities.

Venom isn’t the only quality to take into account when discussing these snakes. Appearance, habitat, behavior, and mating habits all make for some key differences between them. Still, this trio of terror is interesting for a myriad of reasons. 

Black Snake, Copperhead, Cottonmouth Fast Facts

SnakeBlack SnakeCopperheadCottonmouth
Size5-8 feet (1.5 – 2.4 m)2-3 feet (0.6 – 0.9 m)3-5 feet (0.9 – 1.5 m)
VenomousRegion dependentYesYes
Kills ByConstrictionBiteBite
HabitatGlobal/Land/WaterU.S./MX/Land/WaterSE U.S./Land/Water
BehaviorCalm and ShyShy/SkittishShy/Skittish

A note on the behavior of the black snake: Like the danger of its bite, its personality may also be considered region-dependent. For instance, the black mamba of Africa is extremely aggressive and defensive. In the States, however, black snakes are chummy enough to be kept as pets.

Black Snakes: Preferred Habits, Hibernation, and Mating Habits

Black snakes are found on every continent of the planet. Which continent you find one on greatly influences whether or not the snakes are dangerous. Hint: If you see a black snake in Australia or Africa, do not, under any circumstances, attempt to introduce yourself.

“Why?” — You might be wondering. Watch this video to see why:

Habitat and Behavior

In the United States, black snakes are commonly known as rat snakes. That name comes from what they like to eat  —  big, juicy rats. In every state, there’s a good chance of finding this type of species. Besides rats, these snakes will eat fish, small birds, and bird eggs.

Catching their food involves constriction — black snakes will coil around a meal and crush it to death. After constriction, it’s time to eat.

Revenge for the snake’s prey comes from hawks, which like to dive from the clouds to snatch black snakes in their talons. Seeing a black snake carried off by a hawk makes rats, birds, and fish believe in a righteous universe.

Having said as much, the North American black snake is not only non-venomous but gets on well with people. As a pet, it will get used to its owner’s presence. First-time snake owners often choose the black snake for its temperament around humans.

In the wild, black snakes can be found in the marsh. You’ll also see them in forests, especially if there’s water nearby. The snake’s habitat usually has to do with food and where it likes to hibernate.


As winter nears, the black snake will go into hibernation. 

In itself, this fact doesn’t stand out. Some snakes hibernate, while others brumate. The black snake, however, is interesting in that it will hibernate with different species of snakes, including rattlesnakes and bullsnakes.

Hibernation helps a snake survive the winter. Its metabolism slows, using up less stored energy, which enables it to remain dormant until spring.

Caves, holes, burrows, and any passage that goes below the frost line are just fine for the black snake. It will emerge, stretching and yawning, in April or May. As with most other snakes, spring is also a time for mating.

Do all black snakes hibernate? No. Because there are so many different types of black snakes to be found all over our glorious planet, their winter habits can be hard to pin down.

Some hibernate, some brumate. Some are poisonous to humans, and some are not. Some lay eggs, while others — such as the red belly black snake — give birth to live young.

Speaking of giving birth…


Cold-climate black snakes mate once every two to three years. In warmer places, mating takes place every year. In the spring, females awaken from hibernation to release a scent that attracts males.

As with most snakes, the female black snake can mate with one male at a time or with several in a “mating ball.” These balls are exactly what they sound like. Disturbing? Probably. Effective? Indeed.

Egg-laying females will produce about twenty eggs per clutch. This happens in early summer. After about sixty days, the eggs hatch, giving us baby black snakes, each about a foot long (0.3 meters).

Red-bellied black snakes, which give birth to live young, will join up with other pregnant females, staying with them until giving birth to anywhere from five to twenty babies.

Copperheads: Preferred Habits, Hibernation, and Mating Habits

The adult copperhead snake is reddish-brown in appearance, wrapped in darker brown spots or bands. Its venom, while lethal to prey such as mice and rats, rarely causes serious problems for humans. 

The below video explains how potent the venom depends on the specific snake and the bitten victim:

Habitat and Behavior

Copperheads live all over the United States and parts of northern Mexico. Their favorite climate, however, is a temperate one, making the forests of eastern American states a common area for sightings. That is, when you can see them at all, for the copperhead snake is a master of camouflage, using its earthy colors to blend in with dirt, rocks, and leaves.

Like its region, the copperhead’s diet is wide. This is not one of those snakes you need to use a special menu for. It is happy to hunt — and kill and eat — insects, mice, rats, rabbits, birds, bird eggs, and even the occasional turtle.

Helping the copperhead on the hunt are a pair of heat-sensory organs between the eye and nostril. These organs detect temperature fluctuations in the snake’s environment, revealing the location of other creatures.


Copperhead snakes seem to be fine with a warm sun — to a point. In spring, they will slither out from the shadows, staying awake all day to hunt or mate. However, a copperhead’s schedule becomes nocturnal in the summertime, especially on wet, humid nights. Its schedule changes once more in the fall, going back to normal, 9-to-5 days.

As winter nears, so does hibernation time. Deep holes, burrows, or caves work best for the copperhead. Should a hibernation spot prove likable enough for a copperhead, it will return to the same spot the following year.


Your typical copperhead snake will mate in spring, just after hibernation, or fall, just before hibernation. In this regard, they are, in a sense, like humans.

When he is ready to mate, a male copperhead will track down a female by her scent. Once he finds a gal to his liking, he may first have to fight another male for her affection. This is done by vertical combat, with the two snakes twisting and twirling about each other until one manages a “pin.”

A pregnant female copperhead gives birth in late summer. She will not lay eggs but, instead, give birth to live young — about 10 on average. Once they’re born, these young make off on their own as independent snakes.

Cottonmouths: Preferred Habits, Hibernation, and Mating Habits

Cottonmouth snakes travel by many names. Some know them as water moccasins. Others call them river rattlers, horn snakes, or water lions.

The cottonmouth lives in various regions of the southeast United States. It gets its name from the bright white color of its inner jaws, which it will display as a method of scaring away anything it sees as a threat. Cottonmouth bodies are almost always black or dark brown, stretching 3 to 5 feet (0.9 – 1.5 meters) in length.

Habitat and Behavior

You’ll find cottonmouth snakes from Virginia all the way down to Florida and then clear over to Texas. As with black snakes and copperheads, the cottonmouth likes to live near the marsh or a lake. A cottonmouth snake can make its entire body float as it swims, holding its head above water.

Some bad news and good news about cottonmouth snakes…

The bad news: They are venomous, with a bite that causes swelling, gastrointestinal issues, and coagulopathy.

The good news: Cottonmouth snakes rarely bite, even when stepped on, preferring to gape instead.

One more thing the cottonmouth shares with the other two snakes in this article is diet. This water moccasin will eat fish, mice, rats, eggs, frogs, and other small animals it manages to catch.

Cottonmouths are nocturnal hunters. They slither around after dark to either bite and hold prey or, if the prey is a mammal, bite and release (so as not to be bitten back). In either case, the victim dies by toxic injection.

The cottonmouth comes equipped with the same heat-sensing organs that copperheads have (both snakes are pit vipers). This means no hiding in the dark…and, more often than not, no escape.


A cottonmouth living in Texas, Georgia, or Florida may not bother to hibernate. Things don’t get terribly cold in the South, so it probably doesn’t see the point. Northern state cottonmouths, however, will hibernate in the winter.

Hibernating cottonmouths will choose any place that’s deep and dark. These snakes will even use burrows previously dug out by other animals. It doesn’t matter so long as their metabolism can slow down for a few months to conserve energy.


A 3-year-old female cottonmouth is ready to mate (for the males, it’s 2 years). As with most snakes, mating happens in the spring. Males, again, will fight for the affection of a female.

However, cottonmouth females can also undergo ​​facultative parthenogenesis, meaning they’re able to reproduce without a male.

In late summer or early fall, the females give birth to anywhere from 10 to 20 young, which, uncommonly to most snakes, will stay with their mother for a short time before striking off on their own. Unfortunately, this is necessary because most newborn snakes aren’t able to survive on their own, even with their mothers guarding them.

Final Thoughts

For North Americans, two of the snakes here — the copperhead and the cottonmouth — should be avoided at all costs. This is due to their venomous bite. All three snakes will avoid confrontation with humans, so if you do happen to see one, merely stand aside to let it pass or give it a wide berth.

Horror stories about being “chased by snakes” are just that — stories. Most “attacks” on humans happen when humans try to interact with these dangerous species. Safely avoiding a snake is as easy as keeping your eyes peeled and respecting its space.

Recent Posts