Texas Gardening forum: Copperheads and Cicadas

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Name: Sandi
Austin, Tx (Zone 8b)
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Bubbles
Aug 8, 2017 8:08 PM CST

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We were sitting on the patio the other night and could barely hear each other because of all the cicadas in the oak trees. It was really noisy! When we finally gave up and came inside, I checked my emails and saw one from the website, Nextdoor. It was an article a neighbor thought we'd all be interested in out here written by Shannon Thompkins for the Houston Chronicle. I could not link it here, so I had to paste... If you don't want to have nightmares about snakes, stop reading this now.
_____
The first copperhead was not a big deal; if you live in the country surrounded by healthy oak/pine forest you expect to come across one of these common, smallish, generally non-aggressive but potentially dangerous pit vipers whose cryptic camouflage gives them their name.
Our chickens regularly catch, kill and eat these venomous snakes when the fowl find them under the duff or rotted logs or other cover when they are foraging in the woods surrounding our place. And I can count on my heart stopping for a couple of beats a half-dozen or so times a year when I chance upon one while cleaning brush/limb/log piles or otherwise rooting around in copperhead habitat on the property.
But by the time I'd had my sixth nocturnal copperhead encounter in a week, I knew this was different.
All but one of the snakes were found within a few feet of the same spot on my nightly walk down the 200-foot driveway to the mailbox, and the other was within 50 feet or so of the others.

"Let me guess," Andrew Gluesenkamp, herpetologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said as I recounted my recent rash of nighttime encounters with the most common venomous snake in eastern Texas. "Was it between about 9 and midnight?"
Yes.
"Do you have any big trees - white oaks, especially - in your yard?"
Yep; a couple were within a few yards of where I'd seen five copperheads, and others are scattered over the acre-or-so lawn.
"What did you hear?"
Huh?
"What were the sounds you could hear?"
Cicadas - "locusts" to most Texans. The woods vibrated with the sound of male cicadas thrumming their mating calls.
"There's your answer," Gluesenkamp said. "You were likely seeing copperheads involved in a feeding aggregation."
Sunset congregation

Turns out, herpetologists and others studying snakes have only recently begun to document what appears to be a common, if previously little noted or studied, behavioral phenomenon among copperheads. It's pretty amazing. And understanding what happens at night this time of year in yards and around camps and hunting lease trailers and other areas in copperhead range could go a long way toward helping folks avoid potentially painful and disconcerting encounters.

"Until you see it, you won't believe it," said Kristofer Swanson, whose Katy Snakes business involves removal of unwanted snakes as well as consulting and safety training inevitably focused on venomous snakes.

Here's what happens:
Each summer, usually beginning around the first of June and continuing into September, cicada larvae that have spent their developmental period burrowed in the soil around the tree roots on which they feed, begin emerging for their metamorphosis into adults.
The larvae, looking like hump-backed beetles, begin digging their way to the surface around dusk. They emerge from the ground, crawl to the nearest vertical structure (usually a tree), climb a foot or two up the trunk, their "shell" splits along its back and the adult cicada works its way out.
Some of the highest-volume movements of cicada larvae are to large oak trees on lawns.

These nocturnal emergences of cicada larvae are like the opening of an all-you-can-eat dinner for some wildlife. Yellow-crowned night herons are one of the species that regularly prey on emerging cicada larvae. Copperheads are another. And when the cicada dinner bell rings, it can draw a copper-colored, fanged crowd.
"They love those nice, clean lawns," Swanson said.

As darkness falls on a summer evening and cicada larvae begin emerging, copperheads head to their feeding stations.
"About 9 o'clock, copperheads start coming out of the woods, and they make a beeline for large oak trees," Gluesenkamp said. "It's really pretty incredible, and suggests copperheads may move a lot more and a lot farther than we thought."
The snakes take up stations at the base of trees or among the exposed roots where they easily pick off lumbering cicada larvae aiming to climb the trunk.
And the diner can get crowded. Every copperhead within crawling distance might congregate around prime feeding spots. How many?
Longtime behavior
"The density can be pretty tremendous - a dozen or more copperheads around the base of a single oak tree," Gluesenkamp said.
Herpetologists have over recent years discovered and documented several of these nocturnal gatherings of cicada-gobbling copperheads.
"This is not a new behavior; it's been going on forever," Gluesenkamp said.

But it's happened under cover of darkness and not noticed, reported or studied by many people.
That's changing. And Texas is where some of the insights into this behavior have been gained.
Probably the most astonishing example of such nocturnal copperhead gatherings has come from a tract near Sweeny in Brazoria County. The landowner contacted herpetologists, reporting seeing dozens of copperheads on his property during summer evenings.

"To be honest, I was sure the guy was exaggerating," Swanson said.

But he met the landowner one evening a couple of years ago and went to collect what snakes he could find. He knew the snakes had arrived for their evening feeding when he saw an owl swoop though the gloom, grab a copperhead from the base of a tree and fly into the darkness.
"I caught 33 (copperheads) the first night," Swanson said.
All were captured in about 90 minutes. Two nights later, he caught another 27 for a total of 59 copperheads from a 1.5-acre lawn.
"This is happening in a lot of places," Swanson said of the gatherings, although most are not nearly as large as the ones on the Brazoria County tract.
Brief but intense

Most, probably, are like what seems to happen in my yard, where a small number of copperheads gather for their evening meals. And the event doesn't last long. The cicada emergence usually begins at dusk and ends two or three hours later.
"By midnight or so, it's over," Gluesenkamp said.
When the locust diner shuts down, the copperheads head back to their respective territories.

Researchers hope to learn more about these nocturnal congregations of copperheads - how far they travel to these feeding sites, population densities and dynamics, etc. But tracking copperheads - fitting them with GPS transmitters that allow monitoring of movement - is an expensive proposition, and there has not been a lot of effort made to study the natural history of a snake most thought was pretty well understood. And it doesn't help that copperheads, being venomous, are not exactly popular with most folks.

That could change as recent scientific insights indicate copperheads might hold a key to improving human health. Over the past decade, medical research has shown contortrostatin, a protein found in copperhead venom, has proved effective in treating some forms of cancer, particularly breast cancer.
The Texas copperheads Swanson collects are used to produce venom for this medical research.
"They are really incredible creatures," Gluesenkamp said. "There's still a lot we can learn about them and from them."
No kidding.
But just watch where you step if you're walking across your lawn between dark and midnight in the summer.
Name: Kristi
east Texas pineywoods (Zone 8a)
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pod
Aug 8, 2017 8:24 PM CST
Oh... now that will give me the heebie jeebies! LOL I am morbidly fascinated by this.

In this area, I know quite a few folks that have received bites from copperheads. Their camo is excellent blending in so well with the pine straw and red dirt.

But I don't set foot outside at night with out the flashlite.

So Sandy, how about you guys when you sit outdoors after dark and listen to the din of the Cicadas? Yeowch!
Be content moving inch by inch because, by days end, the inches, will add up to feet and yards.

Fulfilling ambitious objectives is usually done one step at a time.
Name: Sandi
Austin, Tx (Zone 8b)
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Bubbles
Aug 8, 2017 8:36 PM CST

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Did I mention all the oaks we have? I'm not too nervous on the patio, but I don't think I'll venture into the yard after dark for a while. We have a greenbelt behind us where all kinds of critters travel. Fortunately, we also have five neighbors with occupied owl houses on our side of the street. I'm thinking I want one too now! We get updated photos of some of the babies perched on the entry holes of each nesting box. They really are cute....when they're little!
Name: Kristi
east Texas pineywoods (Zone 8a)
Winter Sowing Cat Lover Dog Lover Vermiculture Birds Bulbs
Canning and food preservation Butterflies Composter Bromeliad Bookworm Greenhouse
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pod
Aug 8, 2017 9:14 PM CST
I love those owl houses. A friend got one as a gift called an "owl shack". Yes, I think I would put up one, or two, or three. Whistling

I will always think of this when I hear the Cicadas...
Be content moving inch by inch because, by days end, the inches, will add up to feet and yards.

Fulfilling ambitious objectives is usually done one step at a time.
Name: Sandi
Austin, Tx (Zone 8b)
Texas Gardening
Forum moderator Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Identifier Master Gardener: Texas
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Bubbles
Aug 8, 2017 9:47 PM CST

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Our yard is full of holes about as big as a thumb. We have soooo...many Cicada Killers flying around. I (Mrs. Smarty Pants) told my neighbors I thought the cicada killers were making those holes, emerging from hibernating to look for cicadas. Now I know better.
Name: Cheryl
Texas (Zone 9a)
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ShadyGreenThumb
Aug 9, 2017 7:00 PM CST
I just learned that some snakes are nocturnal! When I think of all those times I worked in the yard long after sundown I shiver!
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tx_flower_child
Aug 13, 2017 12:30 AM CST
Well I found this whole thing fascinating. (And well written.) Like who knew?

I didn't even know that chickens eat snakes. Would have thought it would be the other way around, which would sorta explain why people who eat snakes always say 'tastes like chicken'.

However I have seen a snake being carried off to the big diner in the sky.

The thing that made me afraid of snakes was a tv show in the 1950s. I think it was an Alfred Hitchcock one but a cousin swears it was Twilight Zone. Either way, there was always something that would make one of us run in the other room until a particularly scary (to us) scene was over. In my case it was snakes coming out of the bathtub drain. Obviously it was decades prior to Snakes on a Plane and everywhere else. And it was before there was a tv in every room.
Name: Porkpal
Richmond, TX
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Keeper of Poultry Farmer Roses Raises cows
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porkpal
Aug 13, 2017 7:23 AM CST
I saw an infant cicada climbing the trunk of one of our oaks yesterday and found myself glancing about on the ground for copperheads.
Porkpal
Name: Sandi
Austin, Tx (Zone 8b)
Texas Gardening
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Bubbles
Aug 13, 2017 8:23 AM CST

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I googled some owl houses for sale. Gee, I think I can build my own....and for a whole lot less! We have a garage full of tools, lots of leftover wood pieces, and enough nails and screws to build a two story house. I need to use these up before our DD puts us in a "home." Now to pick a one of those plans I googled.
Name: Porkpal
Richmond, TX
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Keeper of Poultry Farmer Roses Raises cows
Garden Ideas: Level 2 Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant Identifier
porkpal
Aug 13, 2017 7:02 PM CST
Sure, go for it. Original designs would work too.
Porkpal
Name: Jolana
Seguin, Tx (Zone 8b)
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froggardener
Aug 18, 2017 9:10 PM CST
That article was so interesting! When we lived in Bastrop county, with all of the pines, we had tons of copperheads . Now I know why there were so many at night during the summer. I wish I had read this earlier instead of so close to bedtime
D'Oh! D'Oh!
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Name: Jolana
Seguin, Tx (Zone 8b)
Enjoys or suffers hot summers Bee Lover The WITWIT Badge Region: Texas Garden Art Irises
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froggardener
Aug 18, 2017 9:10 PM CST
That article was so interesting! When we lived in Bastrop county, with all of the pines, we had tons of copperheads . Now I know why there were so many at night during the summer. I wish I had read this earlier instead of so close to bedtime
D'Oh! D'Oh!
Gardening is learning, learning, learning. That's the fun of them.
You're always learning !
Helen Mirren
Name: Sandi
Austin, Tx (Zone 8b)
Texas Gardening
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Bubbles
Jun 24, 2018 1:13 PM CST

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I was looking for a @needrain post about tillandsias. This popped up and I reread it. Glad I did because we have been finding cicadas at night for a few weeks. I had actually forgotten about the "slither-ka-dees."
Name: Donald
Eastland county, Texas (Zone 8a)
Region: Texas Enjoys or suffers hot summers Raises cows Plant Identifier
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needrain
Jun 24, 2018 3:07 PM CST
I remember this article. I think some of the copperheads don't "go back" to their territory nodding I believe some just find cool place to rest and wait for another night. I have oak trees and cicadas and copperheads. I've also been bitten by a copperhead once. It was concealed in the loose, damp soil of a flowerbed that an armadillo had plowed. I was smoothing it back and the little fella was just under the surface of the loose dirt.

Here's a couple of photos of the cicada process some of you might enjoy. I saw a grub as it made its way up the oak tree and went and got my camera and stood taking photos for a couple of hours. It was a nice way, if a bit warm, to entertain myself.

This is what the holes they leave look like after they emerge from the ground:
Thumb of 2018-06-24/needrain/351e46

This is the live grub making its way up the bark of the tree trunk:
Thumb of 2018-06-24/needrain/a6404e

This is the metamorphosis in action. This process takes a while and, presumably, they are at their tastiest in this stage - even for humans if you're inclined to try Big Grin :
Thumb of 2018-06-24/needrain/7c013e

I thought the wads that eventually became the wings couldn't really make wings. It looked liked I had watched a deformed cicada emerge:
Thumb of 2018-06-24/needrain/20358c

But the wings did eventually straighten up and it wasn't long 'til it flew off after this photo. I'm not sure how long the whole process took because I didn't actually see it emerge from the ground. They are incredibly slow - sort of like a stone that suddenly can move, you can barely seem them move. They don't cover distances very fast. This one fell off the tree three times before it managed to move on up. Lucky for me because he was just about eye level when the time had come to split and emerge and it couldn't go any further. The process I stood around watching took nearly 6 hours. This one at least wasn't food for something, but they are very vulnerable from emergence to this stage:
Thumb of 2018-06-24/needrain/11e73e

There are, of course, a lot more photos taken in between these. I had lots of time standing around watching.

@Bubbles a couple of my Tillandsia recurvata balls have buds. If those blooms were a bit more flashy, these would be really popular plants. They are loaded with with buds and last year the one ball that bloomed had a long period of bloom.

Donald
Name: Porkpal
Richmond, TX
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Keeper of Poultry Farmer Roses Raises cows
Garden Ideas: Level 2 Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Plant Identifier
porkpal
Jun 24, 2018 3:49 PM CST
That is a really neat series of pictures, Donald!
Porkpal
North Central TX (Zone 8a)
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tx_flower_child
Jun 24, 2018 10:48 PM CST
OMG to @Bubbles for rewinding this thread. I had totally forgotten about it. And I did see an empty cicada shell the other day and started to crush it but then I thought, 'Why bother?'

OMG OMG to @needrain for taking some incredible photos. 6 hours?
Name: Sandi
Austin, Tx (Zone 8b)
Texas Gardening
Forum moderator Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Identifier Master Gardener: Texas
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Bubbles
Jun 25, 2018 7:00 AM CST

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Great photos, @needrain! Don't know how you had the patience to to watch the process for six hours.
Name: Donald
Eastland county, Texas (Zone 8a)
Region: Texas Enjoys or suffers hot summers Raises cows Plant Identifier
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needrain
Jun 25, 2018 7:34 AM CST
Bubbles said:Great photos, @needrain! Don't know how you had the patience to to watch the process for six hours.


It was just out of the door of the house. The process was so slow that it was easy to go in and out. I was afraid I'd miss some critical moment, though, so I more or less stuck by and watched. Also, I had a fear that a bird or lizard might come and nab it for their lunch. Hanging around was like insurance that becoming a food source was unlikely Smiling . It was really interesting to see.
Donald

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