(AL.com) — Birmingham residents are more concerned than usual about slithering reptiles this week, after four children in the metro area were bitten by copperhead snakes eight days apart.
Although these incidents -- in Hoover Thursday and Mountain Brook last week and also Chilton County -- raise lots of concerns, David Steen, an assistant research professor at the Auburn University Museum of Natural History, said copperheads are all around us and always have been.
"Copperheads can be found throughout the state of Alabama and are quite common in some areas," Steen said. "I think it is safe to say that we see only a small fraction of the copperheads we are near as they are highly camouflaged and stay still to avoid predators."
Steen said this time of year the snakes may be looking for mates or for places to hibernate over the winter, and "may be encountered now a bit more frequently than usual."
Both of the children bitten recently in the Birmingham area have been released from the hospital.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 7,000-8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes every year, resulting in about five deaths annually.
While copperheads account for a lot of bites, their venom is generally considered milder than some other venomous snakes in the U.S. and Steen said it's rare that a copperhead bite would be fatal to humans.
The CDC states that copperheads are rarely aggressive, and tend to freeze when they get spooked. Many bites occur when people unknowingly get too close to a copperhead, either stepping on or just next to it.
The CDC recommends seeking medical treatment for snake bites immediately and not waiting to see if symptoms develop. Some of the rare snake-bite fatalities in the U.S. occurred when victims delayed seeking treatment.
Getting a photo or general description of the snake can prove helpful, if that is possible, but seeking medical attention should be the first priority.
How to identify a copperhead
Steen, a Ph. D biologist, has built more than 20,000 followers on his Twitter account, @AlongsideWild, helping users identify snakes and other wild creatures from photos they send in using the hashtag #WildID.
Copperheads are often mistaken for juvenile cottonmouths, or water moccasins, or for common water snakes.
Steen suggests looking at the coloration pattern of the snake. Copperheads have hourglass-shaped dark brown bands across a lighter body. They're often described as resembling Hershey's Kisses on top of chocolate milk, which Steen says is an apt analogy.
He has posted extensively in his blog and on Twitter on ways to tell the difference between copperheads and cottonmouths.