It’s Rattlesnake Mating Season!

By Kelsey Grousbeck, Intern

As you make your way around Jasper Ridge and surrounding hills, it’s not just the rock formations that are serpentine. The Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis oreganus) is native to Northern California and breeds in the late summer, favoring these rocky grasslands for their habitat. Though rattlesnakes strike fear into many hikers, that is typically all the striking they do. The California Department of Fish and Game assures hikers that attacks are accidental and, unless provoked, these snakes favor retreat and give clear warning signs (such as their rattle) before attacking (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/snake.html).

The Northern Pacific Rattlesnake is also found in mixed woods and sagebrush from central California up to Washington and British Columbia, extending into parts of Idaho. Depending on their surroundings, their coloring can vary from olive to gray or tan with darker blotches. They get to be an average length of about 2 feet, with some as long as 5 feet, and in the wild it is estimated they live to be about 15 years old. Their prey consists of reptiles, amphibians and small rodents, though the adult California Ground Squirrel has developed immunity to their venom and responds aggressively if attacked.

Range of Northern Pacfic Rattle Snake

Range of Northern Pacific Rattlesnake in California

Though they breed in the summer, rattlesnake females store the sperm and do not reproduce until the following spring. A female Northern Pacific Rattlesnake can reproduce only once every three years because they must double their body weight before pregnancy. The increased weight allows them to survive since they fast for almost 19 months during pregnancy and the following hibernation period. Females give birth to about 2-8 live young in mid-September. These young have underdeveloped “buttons” where their rattles will be, which they do not fully develop until they are over a year old. Juvenile rattlesnakes, despite not having developed rattles, still contain as much venom as adults.

Northern Pacific Rattle Snake

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal to humans, so if you have been bitten don’t panic. Instead, rinse the wound with soap and water, remove anything that may constrict swelling such as watches or rings, apply a cool, wet cloth to the area and get to a hospital or poison control center as soon as you can. Do not apply a tourniquet or ice to the bite and never cut the wound or try to suck the venom out with your mouth, as those practices can end up harming you further.

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

To avoid an unfavorable interaction with a rattlesnake, be sure to wear proper hiking boots and long pants while hiking in areas that could be snake habitat. Additionally, step on top of rocks or stumps as opposed to over them, since snakes enjoy resting against the side of these trail obstacles. To be extra cautious, use a walking stick to prevent a threatened snake from attacking if you accidentally walk too close.

The most important fact to remember when you come across a rattlesnake is that they are a threatened species and should be respected and left alone. Once you know how to avoid engaging a rattlesnake, hiking in the summer and fall can be very exciting, especially when you can try to spot young rattlesnakes before they head to their burrows to hibernate. So happy trails and beware any ominous rattle sounds!

Edit: These photos were taken yesterday by Audrey at Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve!

Rattlesnake Mating Dance © Audrey Rust

Rattlesnakes at Russian Ridge© Audrey Rust

Rattlesnake Mating Dance © Audrey Rust

Rattlesnakes at Russian Ridge © Audrey Rust

Rattlesnake Mating Dance © Audrey Rust

Rattlesnakes at Russian Ridge © Audrey Rust

And a neat video from Animal Planet (Thanks, Audrey!):

5 Comments»

  Lee Dittmann wrote @

For those who haven’t heard it, the “rattle” of a rattlesnake is more of a buzz, reminding me of the sound of the self-timer on some cameras.

When I worked at Henry Coe State Park through the 90s, all definite cases of rattlesnake bites, and all recorded from the previous decades, resulted when a male visitor picked up or tried to pick up a rattlesnake. The classic case was that of a Boy Scout leader picking one up to show the scouts how to handle them–and getting bit!

There was a case of a woman reporting a wound on the leg from what she thought was a stick striking her. The first aid volunteer was fairly sure it was a rattlesnake bite, but there was no swelling involved, and if so, it may have been a “dry” strike. (Maybe the victim had poor vision.) A significant percentage of rattlesnakes do not inject venom when biting.

There is no guarantee that a rattlesnake will warn you before striking, but that is usually the case. If they are not alarmed at your presence for whatever reason, they may not buzz, and I’ve passed some on the trail only to notice them as I look down. More often, I’ve been startled by the buzz of a rattler as I’ve walked by; snakes I would have gone right by without noticing did put an extra hop in my step.

In general, the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake is less “aggressive” (perhaps “proactively defensive” would be a better term) than other species. The Mojave Rattlesnake (of the California deserts) is not quite so docile, and the venom is particularly toxic, and more likely to result in death if untreated than most other species.

  POST wrote @

Hi Lee,

Thank you so much for sharing this info! Henry Coe is one of my favorite parks, and I have had many neat wildlife encounters there, including rattlesnakes! I have to say my favorite crawly creature is the tarantula!

http://www.coepark.org/tfest.html

Thanks again!
~Megan

  Audrey Rust wrote @

Just a clarification — a group of us came upon these two male snakes on the Ancient Oaks trail at Russian Ridge. The males were competing for a female (which we didn’t see) by a kind of arm wrestling, the stronger snake winning the lady. From what I’ve read, this contest does not involve any biting and the snakes do not actually harm each other. These two continued to fight for several minutes after we came upon them and then one went off in a rattling huff. We encouraged the second to do the same. The two of them continued to make quite a lot of noisy rattling a few feet off the trail in the poison oak. I’ve only seen photos of this before so I was thrilled to observe the snakes at close range.

  Lee Dittmann wrote @

Thanks, Megan.

For the benefit of those who may need to move a rattlesnake out of a developed area without hurting it (or getting hurt themselves), let me describe a method we used at Coe:

We had a kitchen-sized Rubbermaid trash container, the tall and slender kind. The lid had a hole cut into it about 4×6 inches in size and next to the edge; the lid was wired on. This was devised by long-time Coe resident ranger Barry Breckling.

When we found a rattler in the visitor center or campground areas, we would get our snake trap, and lay it on its side a few feet away from the snake, so that the hole in the lid was closest to the ground. We would then use a long stick to gently herd the snake toward the trap. The snake, seeing what looked like a safe dark crevice, would glide through the hole in the lid into the trash container. We then stood it upright, the snake would slide to the bottom, and the sides were too slick for it to climb out–assuming the snake was less the three feet long, which they were (though I did see a five footer once at Coe in the backcountry).

We could then transport and release (by upending the container) the snake in a safer area. (Safer for humans AND for the snakes, which get killed by people despite prohibitions against it.)

How well they survive in the new area, we had no way of knowing. The National Park Service was recently conducting research on how well relocated rattlesnakes survive at Great Basin National Park, and I don’t what the results were. Apparently they are territorial, and/or need to know the local terrain fairly well before they are successful at hunting rodents and finding suitable shelter.

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