Cicada Killer, But Not The Kind You Think

There is no better high than discovery.

~E.O. Wilson

I walked out the front door before heading to bed last night just to see what I might see. The din from form the katydids was almost deafening, punctuated by the loud throaty “gunk” calls of the Green Frogs in the nearby water garden. When I swung the flashlight beam across the walkway, I saw something that really surprised me. I ran inside and grabbed my phone to try to get a quick image, as it was moving quickly.

Climbing Copperhead

Climbing Copperhead (click photos to enlarge)

What I saw was a Copperhead climbing in a stressed (almost leafless) Heart’s-a-busting shrub out front. Probably the same Copperhead we had seen the night before on the wooden walkway when we came back from a late dinner. I have seen many Copperheads in the yard, but never one climbing that far off the ground (probably 4 feet up in the shrub). It was several feet off the path, and, since I had only shorts and sandals on, I really didn’t want to venture out into the vegetation. The snake seemed purposeful in its movements, flicking its tongue and seemingly headed in a particular direction. Suddenly, my flashlight caught what I guessed was the snake’s destination – a cicada was starting to emerge out on the end of a delicate twig in that same shrub. I bolted inside to get my real camera which was, unfortunately, snugly tucked in its camera bag. These things never go as fast as you want – get camera, get macro lens and attach, grab twin flash and attach, install fresh batteries, run back outside. By the time I returned, the snake had worked its way much closer to the cicada.

Climbing Copperhead 2

The Copperhead was headed for something

The transforming adult cicada was now almost all of the way out of the nymph’s exoskeleton. I wanted to get closer for a photo so I gingerly stepped out into the vegetation, carefully looking where I was placing my feet. When I looked up, the snake was almost there, and as I brought up the camera to fire a shot, the emerging adult insect dropped free of the clinging nymph’s skin..dang it (honest, that’s what I said).

Closing in on cicada 2

The Copperhead closing in on the now empty cicada nymph shed

Closing in on cicada

Checking out the cicada shed

The hungry snake nudged the shed (the snake was also probably murmuring, dang it), and then changed direction, and, to my surprise, started heading toward the adult cicada now clinging on a small twig below.

Closing in on cicada 1

The Copperhead gets very close to the adult cicada, which is still unfurling its wings

Right as it closed in on its intended victim, the snake changed direction and started climbing back up into the shrub. I can only guess that either I was creating too much commotion with my excited movements and firing of flash, or, the cicada’s twig was just too small to support the snake.

Climbing Copperhead 1

The Copperhead retreats

The snake quickly descended down a larger twig, dropped to the ground, and slithered off, despite my attempt to corral it into a bucket (I usually like to move Copperheads to somewhere outside the deer fence).

It all happened pretty fast, and I had hurried my shots as I tried to take in this incredible scenario. What a discovery…a Copperhead climbing several feet off the ground to feed on an emerging cicada. Who knew!

Well, it turns out several people knew. This is a much more common occurrence than I realized. I immediately thought of a reference book on my shelf entitled Reptiles of North Carolina, co-authored by my former museum colleagues, Bill Palmer and Alvin Braswell. I remembered being surprised to read in this volume about Copperheads feeding on Hickory Horned Devil caterpillars, the largest caterpillar in North America, and one of my favorites. I located a table in the book listing the food items found in an analysis of the stomach contents of 41 Copperheads. Here is what the researchers could identify: 15 small mammals, 15 caterpillars (mostly large species sch as Hickory Horned Devils and Luna Moths), 5 lizards, 3 small snakes, 3 salamanders, 2 cicadas, and 1 small turtle.

So, they do feed on cicadas, but the climbing of trees and shrubs, how common is that? I turned to the internet for some answers (how lucky naturalists are now to have the power of the internet at their fingertips when they discover something new and want to learn more). The first hit was an incredible study by someone documenting Copperheads climbing trees to eat emerging cicadas! The three things that struck me from the report were that Copperheads often aggregate in areas to climb trees to feed on emerging cicadas; that they are following the scent trails of the nymphs as they climb from their subterranean feeding area up into the trees and shrubs to emerge as adults; and that one of the scientists that helped identify the cicadas to species for this study was another former museum colleague, Bill Reynolds.

Cicada escapes

This cicada narrowly escaped being dinner for a Copperhead

This really made me appreciate even more the dedicated field work, observations, and documentation being done by scientists like my former colleagues. I stumbled upon something that I have never seen before, but that is fairly well-documented. By searching my references and the internet, I was able to learn something about an amazing feeding behavior by a creature that I now appreciate much more than before. It is discoveries like these that can help us to understand and appreciate our world and that can only help us want to conserve it, even when it at first seems like something most of us might not care about protecting. And it once again made me realize how much I love discovering new things and learning about our natural world, a never-ending source of amazement.

4 thoughts on “Cicada Killer, But Not The Kind You Think

  1. Again with the gorgeous pictures! You constantly amaze me though I should be completely used to your abilities by now. It’s not surprise on my part — I overcame that with the first exhibit I saw of your work. It’s the beauty that your pictures reveal that re-awakens me.

    And such a pleasure to read a professional view of the copperhead. Sadly, most people just want to malign and kill this generally innocent and non-aggressive snake. But I would expect no less of you. Now at least anyone who sees this article will know what they look like and how precisely they fit their description. Nice service for all, Mike.

      • Yeah, I’m with you on lurking outside the door! I have only seen about 4 in all the 23 years we’ve lived here, and most were away from the house. But the most recent was a few weeks ago was next to the steps down to our screen room. I encourage it to slither off to the other side of our small yard fence. I think mostly the various black snakes keep them away encouraged by some racket from the dogs…

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