Last Tuesday I found this rattlesnake outside my back door in the morning and outside my front door in the afternoon. Saw the same individual at the front door again on Wednesday.
Here in northern California, all winter long they stay burrowed in the earth enjoying a protected subterranean sleeping life while us mammals endure the rain and chilly temperatures. Then in April or May, depending how warm and dry it is, they come out looking for food and a mate to get the new season underway. This is when we see them, and they’re frisky, active, and prevalent. This time of year can be unnerving, but if you learn how to cohabit with this magnificent serpent you’re fine. After these two spring months pass we don’t see them again except for an occasional surprise encounter.
This is a venomous viper, so it works best to learn their patterns and boundaries and be respectful. Some people around here kill every rattlesnake they see, but to me that translates they are afraid of it. We have lived on this property 11 years and there have always been rattlesnakes here, but we have never killed one. Have never had an incident of getting bit ever. It is a symbiotic relationship, which goes on a lot in nature if you allow it. We don’t bother the rattlers, they don’t bother us, and they keep our mouse population blessedly in check.
When we moved here the mice were a problem. Then we found out the previous owner killed every rattler. Now, the only time the mice are a problem is in the early spring when they want to build nests under the hood of our cars. The snakes haven’t woken up yet. We have to use mouse traps under the hood because, let’s face it, you can’t have mice eating away your filters and wires. But once the snakes are awake the mouse traps go back in the shed until next spring.
The western rattlesnake, pictured here, lives in all the western states of the U.S.; this individual is in a sub-species called Northern Pacific and resides in western CA as well as WA, OR and ID. They like dry, warm habitats. This one I saw was the first sighting of the season and it was hidden in grass so I couldn’t see the rattle. I had my foot in mid-air to step onto a cinderblock, when I noticed something inside the cinderblock. The sun reflected shininess off of a reptile head. I thought it was a harmless lizard. Then when it didn’t scurry away like a lizard I paused and stepped back. Its forked tongue shot out at me, sensing me as I sensed him. Even though the rattle was hidden, I knew it was a rattlesnake by the triangular-shaped head. I moved back to safety, observed from a distance with my binoculars, and saw why it hadn’t moved. It had just eaten something pretty big, couldn’t move until he did some digesting. The center of his body was widely misshapen and stretched out several inches wider than the rest of the body. Through the binoculars I saw light-colored fur beside him and realized he had just eaten a chipmunk. The chipmunks like to hang out in that little corner…or at least they did.
No other viper on earth has rattles. The rattles are loosely interlocking segments at the end of the tail. Each year when they shed their skin they grow a new rattle. But they don’t necessarily have one rattle for every year of life because a youth sometimes adds 3 or 4 segments in a year, and older snakes don’t always add a new rattle. This individual is probably 8 or 10 years old. I try not to get so close that I get rattled at, because that’s the danger sign. Once my partner and I each had huge armloads of weeds we were carrying and we didn’t see the fella; he rattled at us and we immediately stopped, stepped back, gave him his space. He didn’t retreat so we did. It is a very cool sound, a hollow clatter, something like a dry gourd.
We’ll be careful in the next few months especially—kick a rock or fallen limb before lifting it, keep the grass short where walking. Mostly it’s about being attentive. Being attentive is a remarkable tool for any species, and being respectful goes a long way too. Happy Spring!