I’d been sitting on the dead ash log for a good thirty minutes before I noticed that I had company. The rattle caught my eye — what an odd piece of vegetation — then the whole snake popped into consciousness — whoa! The animal was curled catlike, its nose and tail resting on the body. It did not move one tiny little bit for the hour that I watched.

2013-06-20 rattlesnake ash 003The eye is clouded which, I think, means that the snake is preparing to molt.

2013-06-20 rattlesnake ash 016A close-up of the scales on the animal’s back (taken with a flash, hence the change in tone from the photos above):

2013-06-20 rattlesnake ash 020The camouflage was incredible: the head was a perfect match for sun-bleached maple leaves, the dark patches were the color of wet litter. Hard to spot, even when you’re close:

2013-06-20 rattlesnake ash 008

I returned the next day found the snake coiled in exactly the same place, its body shifted slightly. Still very hard to see:

spottherattlesnake2By coincidence, I received a frozen road-killed rattlesnake this week from some colleagues whose vehicle accidentally violated the revolutionary imperative: Don’t Tread on Me. This allows a closer look at the source of the phobias that have etched snakes into the deepest parts of our subconscious (religious allegories, anyone?).

roadkilledrattlesnakeIn pulling open the mouth to get a photo, I managed to spike myself on the lower teeth. So when asked whether I’ve ever been bitten by a snake, I can now answer No, but I’ve bitten myself with a rattlesnake. Another entry in the Annals of Zoological Stupidity. As it happens, this week I’m reading David Quammen’s excellent new book, Spillover, which is full of tales of microbes leaping into humans through pin-prick wounds. So far, the end of my thumb shows no sign of incubating the next zoonotic pandemic.

If these images fang you with fear, let me add that I’ve spent thousands of hours in Shakerag Hollow and this is the only close encounter I’ve had with a rattlesnake.

The timber rattlesnake is declining across most of its range due to habitat changes, road mortality and direct persecution from people. In its former territory in the Northeast, sightings are very rare indeed. In the snakes’ place, plagues of tick-bearing small rodents tromp merrily through the woods, their enemy defeated.

38 thoughts on “Rattlesnake

  1. Mowque

    I’ve never seen a rattlesnake but other snakes (like the black) seem quite common if you go look for them. Are they decreasing in number as well?

    I will second that fact that that camouflage is amazing effective.

  2. country mouse

    I looked at the second photo of snake-in-habitat for ages before triangulating the position with the first photo to see the snake. I thought you were codding us on there for a while! Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m loving What the Robin Knows by Jon Young right now. Along with your book, I’m finding a lot of support for stilling and deepening my awareness of nature. It’s changing me, I think.

  3. Robley Hood

    I’ve had one close encounter at Chestnut Lake. I don’t plan on going back there again soon. :-)

  4. Carol A Cunningham

    Western Diamondbacks are common where I live (Tehachapi Mountains in CA), and they, too, are suffering from lack of room and understanding. Some neighbors kill them; I call our local “snake relocaters” to move any too near the house to farther off on my land. I need all the ground squirrel predators I can get! Have seen one Mojave Green on the desert, but not up here. Love your blog and attention to the real world, which, thank heavens, still exists up here. Thank you!

  5. Risa Bear

    Wonderful gem of a small essay.

    When I was a Georgian, back in the middle of the last century, I regularly encountered timber rattlers, Eastern diamondbacks, pygmy rattlers, copperheads, moccasins, king snakes, common water snakes, and the like in places where they have not been seen in a while. Sad.

    Here in the southern Willamette Valley, Oregon, we have the unspectacular Western Diamondbacks in a den about two miles off; hardly anyone knows they are there. The neighborhood regularly destroys gopher snakes, thinking them to be rattlers until the post-mortem. (._.) Our garden boils with garter snakes and we regard them as valuable allies.

  6. Fred Kaselow

    Just saw a rattlesnake six feet off the side of a well travelled trail in the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey last week. It would be nice to see them make a comeback.

  7. jimannh

    I have always thought of seeing a snake in the wild as a gift. I occasionally spot a timber rattler along the road to home, and I always stop to observe – but I have never seen one in the woods and I have never heard one sing. I captured a copperhead once that regularly crossed my front path and then moved it – not an optimum thing to do but children and very old dogs used the path as well. I see a couple of others in out of the way spots in the yard every year, but I have only seen even copperheads a very few times out in the woods. I did hear one once rustling through the leaves in front of me, and I could smell it, (somewhere between cucumber and carrion) which was neat. Thank you for this post, David – wonderful photographs. Are you still using the Panasonic Luminex?

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Hi Jim Ann, Thank you. I can smell the ratsnakes, but have yet to cue into the copperheads, perhaps because I so seldom see them (fine with me…). It is a gift, albeit one that gets the heart racing at close quarters. Yes, still using the same old camera. It was malfunctioning then bounced back. Fingers crossed.

  8. Jim Markowich

    That is so cool! Sorry to go all twelve-year-old-boy on you with that reaction, but it IS what I felt.

    We’ve had a place in NE Pennsylvania for 24 years, and were warned early on by locals that rattlers were common. We haven’t seen one once in that time, despite spending a lot of time in the woods, up on rocky ledges, and along the Upper Delaware and its tributaries.

    Come to think of it, this spring I’ve found no less than nine dog ticks on me, whereas in the previous twenty three years, I’d had none.


  9. Donna Black

    I had to good fortune to run across (not literally!) a king snake in my yard in GA the other day. He gave me an incensed look when I reached out and stroked his tail, but I love the silky feel of them and couldn’t resist. I left to him go along his way, happy to know he was around. Lovely essay.

  10. Karen Pick

    Any story involving a snake rivets. A story involving a venomous snake even more! Loved this one! (Although sad to hear they’re in decline.)
    Love the comments too: smelling snakes?
    Did it not move because it was molting? Would it have been dangerous otherwise?
    We don’t have any venomous snakes up here, but my kids once messed with a nest of garter snakes and were bitten. They likened it to being bitten by a cat. Looking at your photo, I now see to what extent that was only an approximation. Plus, we never thought of disease!
    Finally, loved the photos and the book recommendation. However, unlike country mouse, I can’t find the snake in the second to last picture. Help!

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      The snake is slightly right of center, slightly below the midpoint vertically. Just below the small rock.

      Snakes do indeed have a smell to them, especially when they linger in one spot. I plan not to put my nose too close, though. :)

  11. Larry Brasher

    I am in our old-growth woods in northeast Alabama all the time, and I never see rattlesnakes on my own. But when my wife, Louise, is with me, she sees them. (I am somewhat red-green color-blind, but I guess that is not an excuse. I think David in The Forest Unseen says color-blind folks are supposed to see outlines better.) Two years ago we were walking in the woods, and Louise said, “STOP!” I thought I was about to step on a red flower. There was a large timber rattler coiled in the sun five feet in front of my stride. Two months later at peak oak leaf hydrangea bloom, we were in the woods, and Louise commented, “I have never actually smelled an oak
    leaf flower.” Leaning down to sniff a flower about two feet off the ground, her auditory sense let her know that she was nose-to-nose with a big rattler whose loud, buzz-singing rattle made Louise move faster than I have seen her move in many years. Three days ago I was assisting Tom Saielli pollinate chestnut trees in The American Chestnut Foundation orchard in Meadowview, VA. The week before, another colleague had pointed out to Tom that he had just stepped over a big timber rattler in the orchard. Tom says studies are showing that rattlesnakes are evolving (rapidly?) to not rattle when they are aware of nearby humans, because rattling almost always results in the snake’s being killed. Wow! Is that plausible?
    Larry Brasher

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Hi Larry, There are definitely differences among people in how easily they see snakes. Same goes for mushrooms (morels, especially). No idea how this works, but I suspect it is less about eyesight and more about how we direct our attention to the world — how the eyes move, where they rest. This may be loosely associated with gender: remember reading a study of mushrooms gatherers that found women gatherers covered less ground than men, but found more mushrooms.

      I had not heard about the rattlers evolving to rattle less. It certainly could happen, but I have no idea whether this actually has happened. Some pygmy rattlers have almost lost their rattles through natural means, perhaps because their predators don’t respond.

  12. Larry Brasher

    RE: Decline in snake populations: When I was a child on vacation at my grandfather’s farm in northeast Alabama 50 years ago, snakes were everywhere abundant and a main course of conversation. Rattlesnakes were run over on the road between Clear Creek and Gallant every week. We could walk down to the spring branch or the creek and expect to see snakes every day. No more. We now take our car to a shop north of Birmingham, where one of the mechanics is nicknamed “Snake Man.” He may know more about snakes in north Alabama than God, and he laments their disappearance. Snake man attributes their decline to the following causes, the last of which was most novel to me and very believable: the life-killing droughts of the summers of 2007-2009; the spread of fire ants that eat snake eggs and young; construction and road development; and last–It has only been in the last 50 years that there has been a legal ban on killing hawks and other raptors. Before that, farmers kept the air clear of hawks that picked up their chickens. Now there are many more hawks who also pick up/off snakes. We may have been until 50 years ago in a human ecology that devastated hawk populations and gave snakes a temporary population boost.
    Larry Brasher

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Very interesting — the web of predators shifting. I had not thought of the hawk connection before.

      Roads (especially volume of traffic) and development have also vastly increased mortality, so teasing out these factors is a challenge.

      Many thanks for these very interesting thoughts! I hope your summer is going well.

      Best wishes, David

  13. Bruce Burdick

    How nice it was the lower teeth of the rattlesnake that got you, and not the upper. (I think it is just the upper teeth with the venom.)

    Here in the Sacramento area a man was bitten by a rattlesnake while gardening. He needed 17 vials of anti-venom over a 24 hour period to finally get his arm so it was not longer enlarging.

    I now carry a cell phone when in rattlesnake areas, and think about getting a ride (or calling 911) to get to the nearest hospital to prevent the spread of the venom. Fortunately, though there are thousands of rattlesnake bites a year in the US, deaths are less than 5 a year (those people having been bitten in the upper body – near the heart – often as part of a religious event holding snakes).

    Here’s an “interesting” link on vultures getting starved in Europe because of the mad cow disease scare – and vultures not having their usual food source.

    May we all be safe from rattlesnake bites, and mad cow disease.

    I like to think

    Endorphins, the drug of choice (so I exercise)
    Health, the goal of choice

    May we all be healthy. Thanks, Bruce

    1. David George Haskell Post author


      That is a scary story. A good reminder to stay away from the snake-handling traditions…

      Getting eaten by a horde of vultures is likewise a distressing thought, although I’d prefer that to eternal rest in a bath of chemicals. (The picture on that story is of a lappet-faced vulture, an African species.) Flocks of vultures over northern Europe is a very unusual sight.

      Many thanks, David

  14. Mike O'Brien

    Scary for sure. In your photos, it looks like the snake has a distended area centrally which is a larger diameter than on either side of it. That together with the lack of movement while you were there and still being there the next day, all suggest that it is digesting a meal such as a small rodent. They will remain still for days while digesting the prey as you know.
    Did you have spare underwear in your backpack?
    Thanks for sharing,
    Mike O’Brien
    Valley Head, AL

  15. Mike O'Brien

    I have trained my Black Labrador Retriever to be aware of snakes. I have done this with the unwilling cooperation of a few Black Rat snakes on our property and several that were unfortunately killed on our country road by cars . Since dogs have such a keen sense of smell, especially my Lab, I believed she could smell snakes and has alerted us to them while on our daily walks. This was confirmed yesterday when I helped a 5 ft long Black Rat snake off the road when I saw it while driving. I used my rolled up sun shield to scoop up the snake and it left its sulphur- like odor on the shield. My dog was in the car, but did not see what I was doing. When I threw the sun shield in the back of my small Honda Element behind the seat where my dog was, she immediately started barking her snake warning bark even though she saw nothing, but certainly smelled the faint scent on the sun shield. What a nose, good dog!

  16. john boulton

    From Edinburgh. from your uncle (doctor) John on a visit.
    Great story as usual, but you were very lucky not to have got an unpleasant bacterial infection. I’ve treated python bites which became badly infected (like you, victim sat whilst python came up for a close look), likewise scratches and bites from a small crocodile on a child (I’m a hospital paediatric specialist). Snakes, goannas, and crocodiles in northern Australia are notorious for harbouring rare gram negative bacteria, so don’t trust your luck that they will be antibiotic sensitive. Use hydrogen peroxide wash immediately and repeat. If the lesion becomes at all red,get a swab done straight away and send to lab, and start antibiotics.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you, John. So far, several days out and no sign of any infection. Vets here tell me that snake mouths do indeed harbor some nasty bacteria. I will stay well away from pointy objects in future. If you haven’t read Spillover, I recommend it. I think you’d enjoy the diversity of examples he draws on, although some will be very familiar to you already (Hendra, Q fever).

      Enjoy the snake-free delights of Scotland.

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