Copperhead vs Chicken Snake: What are the Differences?

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Published: August 4, 2022
Image Credit imageBROKER.com/Shutterstock.com
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Think You Know Snakes?

The copperhead and chicken snake are two snake species you’re probably familiar with. Although the “chicken snake” is not scientifically recognized by that name, the species was given the name based on its love for chickens as prey. Also known as tiger rat snake or caninana snake, chicken snakes are found in the warmer parts of the Americas, while copperheads are found in Northern America.

Like most snakes, these species have fascinating similarities and differences. If you’ve ever wondered about the major differences and similarities between copperheads and chicken snakes, this article has all you need to know. Let’s compare and contrast the copperhead and the chicken snake.

Comparing the Copperhead and the Chicken Snake

Copperheads are venomous pit vipers, while chicken snakes are constricting colubrids.

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CopperheadChicken Snake
Venomous?YesNo
Size0.2 – 0.7 pounds 
20-37 inches
8 – 10 pounds
48– 96 inches
MorphologyCopper or orange-red triangular heads
Pale brown to pinkish-brown skin
Hourglass-shaped markings that are colored copper to reddish-brown
Dorsal and ventral scales 
Juveniles have bright-colored tail tips
Black with yellow spots that may form crossbands
Yellow-tipped snout
HabitatsDeciduous forest, rock outcroppings, mixed woodlands, and occasionally swampy regionsForested areas and often found near water bodies
Mode of defense/ attackVenomous bites
Musk
Constriction
DietToads, small mammals, frogs, lizards, rats, small snakes, and even other copperheadsChickens, small mammals, lizards, birds, and other snakes
TemperamentThey freeze when humans come near, and this causes people to unknowingly step on/near them and get bitten.Mildly aggressive

Key Differences Between the Copperhead and the Chicken Snake

The main differences between copperheads and chicken snakes lie in their morphology, snake families, diet, habitats, and modes of attack and defense. One similarity they have is that they are both solitary except during mating season. Let’s address their differences in detail.

Copperhead vs. Chicken Snake: Morphology

Broad Band Copperhead Snake
Copperheads are shorter than chicken snakes.

Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock.com

Chicken snakes and copperheads do not look alike, with chicken snakes being much longer and heavier than copperheads. Copperheads measure 20-37 inches (1.7 to 3.1 feet) on average, while chicken snakes measure 48– 96 inches (4 to 8 feet), which makes chicken snakes close to double their length. Weight-wise, chicken snakes take the lead again, measuring 128- 160 ounces compared to copperheads, which weigh 3.2 – 11.2 ounces.

Copperheads can easily be identified by their copper-colored heads on their pale brown to pinkish-brown skins with copper to reddish-brown hourglass-shaped markings. Chicken snakes are black with yellow spots that may form crossbands. They also have snouts with yellow tips.

Copperhead vs. Chicken Snake: Snake Family and Diet

chicken snake
Chicken snakes are constrictors known for their love of chickens.

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Copperheads and chicken snakes come from two different snake families. Copperheads are pit vipers and use their pit organs to sense and detect prey through their body heat, making them formidable hunters. They ambush their prey once they get close enough by digging into their skins with their long solenoglyphous fangs, which inject venom into their prey.

While the venom spreads and weakens their prey, copperheads may or may not hold on to them until they are weak enough to be consumed. They feed on toads, small mammals, frogs, lizards, rats, small snakes, and even other copperheads, making them cannibals.

On the other hand, chicken snakes are colubrids and constrictors. They wrap their long bodies around their prey and suffocate them to death. As their prey exhales, constrictors squeeze more tightly, soon killing them. Chicken snakes are known for their love of chickens as meals, but they also eat other small mammals, lizards, birds, and other snakes. However, they do not eat other chicken snakes.

Copperhead vs. Chicken Snake: Habitats

Copperheads and chicken snakes are found in different habitats. Copperheads inhabit a wide range of habitats and can be found in forests where most trees lose their leaves in the fall. They can also be found in rock outcroppings, mixed woodlands, swampy regions, and even abandoned buildings, so be sure to look out for them in your old shed if they are found in your state.

Chicken snakes, however, can be found in forested areas and are often found near water. They are really good tree climbers and are often found in trees. It’s also important to note that chicken snakes are endemic to the Americas while copperheads are endemic to the North American continent alone.

Copperhead vs. Chicken Snake: Modes of Attack and Defense

Copperheads are venomous snakes, while chicken snakes are constrictors. Copperheads have hemotoxic venom but aren’t considered extremely venomous. This isn’t to say that their bites are not capable of killing a human- they are. However, they have a relatively low venom yield, especially compared to their lethal venom dose.

These pit vipers have a maximum venom yield of 80 to 100mg and need about 85 to 100mg to kill a human. On average, they only emit 26 mg of venom, which is why only about 0.01% of their bites are fatal. Copperheads also have the ability to spray foul-smelling musk, which mostly occurs when they are picked up or touched.

Chicken snakes are constrictors. Their long, thick bodies give them enough strength to kill their prey through suffocation. They are also called tiger rat snakes because of how lithely and swiftly they glide through trees. This speed and agility help them when attacking and defending themselves.

Copperhead vs. Chicken Snake: Temperament

chicken snake
Chicken snakes are more aggressive than copperheads.

gabriel_viniciuss/Shutterstock.com

Copperheads and chicken snakes have two different reputations with humans. While copperheads aren’t known to be aggressive, they bite more people than any other snake in the USA. How does this happen? Copperheads freeze in a spot in a bid to camouflage when they sense humans. This often backfires as humans do not spot them and proceed to walk on or near them. This causes copperheads to bite. However, unless provoked, these pit vipers aren’t known to attack.

The same cannot be said of chicken snakes, which seem to have mixed impressions on people. Many people claim that these snakes are aggressive and are known to chase and bite with little provocation, unlike most snakes that only attack as a last resort. However, other reports dispute this and claim that they are only aggressive when directly provoked. Either way, chicken snakes are definitely more aggressive than copperhead snakes.

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