Venomous Snakes of The Northeast USA

Tim and I make a good couple in many ways. When we order wings, he likes the drumsticks and I like the flats. He likes to drive and I like to be the passenger. When it comes to household pests, he handles the creepy crawlers and I handle snakes. 

Two Quick Stories

When we lived in Florida, I awoke one morning to find my new husband had emptied several kitchen cabinets. He was standing on a chair in front of one cupboard holding a flashlight and a sneaker. My foggy morning brain could not process what was going on. He had seen an enormous spider and was hunting it down. My hero!

Also while we lived in Florida, Tim was organizing some totes in the spare room when he found a small snake. I watched as he slid a tote away from the wall and froze in place. “What’s wrong?” I said. He carefully backed out of the room. I looked behind the tote to find a tiny (dead) snake. I swept it up and threw it away. His hero!

Common Snakes of the Northeast

There are about fifty species of snakes in all of the United States. In order to keep this post a reasonable length, I’ll talk about the common snakes in my region. Among these are the Black Rat Snake, Common Garter Snake, and the Northern Water Snake. 

While many people tend to be afraid of snakes, most species found in the Northeast United States are harmless. There are three venomous varieties you should be able to identify and avoid.

General Characteristics of Venomous Snakes

Three characteristics set venomous snakes apart from their non-venomous kin. First, they have cat-like eyes where harmless snakes have round pupils. Since none of us should get close enough to look into a fair reptile’s eyes, the other two distinguishing factors are more useful. 

If you find a shed skin, the scales on the underside of a venomous snake form a single line all the way to the tip of the tail. In non-venomous snakes, the scales split into a double row near the end of its tail. 

Lastly, the characteristic you will see most readily is the shape of the head. Venomous snakes have a broadly triangular head because their venom sacs are located at the base of the jaw. A non-venomous snake has a less-pronounced head shape.

Knowing these few facts is helpful to keep you safe from harmful snakes. It is best to know which venomous snakes live near you and how to identify them.

Timber Rattlesnake

There are two different colors (phases) of Timber Rattlesnake: black and yellow. Both colors have dark bands on their backs and no markings on their wide heads. They can grow up to 60 inches long. Timber Rattlesnakes do not always rattle before striking, so listening is important, but watching where you walk is key.

Eastern Massasauga

This type of  rattlesnake is more rare and the smallest of the venomous snakes in the northeast. It grows less than 24 inches long and has black blotches outlined in gray down its back. They live in wetland areas with meadows or dry fields nearby. 


Copperheads are tan or light brown with dark brown or reddish markings. The bands are narrow in the middle making an hourglass like shape. The head is copper with no markings, hence its name. They can grow up to 36 inches long. These snakes keep still when they feel threatened. Likely, they will let you pass without noticing them unless you are about to tread on them. 

Avoiding Snakes on the Trail

Luckily, these three species of venomous snakes are not aggressive and would rather avoid you. They will tend to keep still or move away when they hear you coming. Even so, be vigilant with children and pets to stay on the trail rather than tromping through the side brush. When walking in the woods, be especially cautious near rocky outcroppings or downed trees.

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