After the storm: rattlesnake encounters will be on the rise

 

Every monsoon season, a handful of big storms that sweep through the valley and rearrange our yards and shingles. The next day, an chainsaws and leafblowers join the sound of cicadas as the aftermath is handled.

Along with the downed trees and trash-scattered streets are rattlesnakes that have been displaced by the water and wind. After a massive storm, places where rattlesnakes may have been hiding from the heat can be flooded or destroyed. That means that these snakes have just a few hours to find new places to hide before the daytime heat kills them. That often puts them into conflict with people.

One of the places where rattlesnakes frequently live during the hottest times of year are in small caves along the edges of normally-dry washes. When these washes fill with water, rattlesnakes need to move. For home owners at the edges of these washes, that means that the rattlesnakes could be moving to the nearest dry area – your patio. Covered patios and entryways make up the majority of rattlesnake relocation situations after rainouts. They’ll also be hiding in the debris caused by the wind and flooding. Fallen trees and collections of yard debris are going to provide cool cover for these displaced snakes, and should be treated with caution when they are cleaned up.

The extra humidity also causes rattlesnakes to be more active, so they are already more likely to be hiding in temporary hiding spots, and may be more easily displaced by the big rain. Rattlesnakes are shedding their skin and heading out to hunt and drink after a long period of inactivity during the hottest and driest time of year, and that makes post-storm movement even more of a factor for home owners bordering desert areas.

Aside from the normal rattlesnake safety measures, extra caution is recommended during the cleanup process.

What should you do to keep safe from displaced rattlesnakes?

  1. Be alert around covered entryways and patios, especially in the corners. Rattlesnakes often use these covered areas to hide after extra-wet weather forces them to leave more preferable areas. If you have any decorations in the corners, like pots or plants, it may be good to move them out or at least create extra space between the corner and these features. Especially in the early morning, be mindful of the spots right around the front door.
  2. If you have downed trees or yard debris that has collected after the heavy wind and rain, give it a day before cleaning it up. Be mindful while you do so of the potential for rattlesnakes to be using it as temporary shelter. Rattlesnakes may be “stuck” in situations where they need to quickly choose places to hide from the daytime heat that are not preferable, and may end up hiding in piles of branches and fallen leaves. By waiting 24 hours, you give the snakes a chance to leave if they are there during the next suitable time to do so (at night).
  3. If you live near a wash or drainage, be especially cautious. Rattlesnakes are very common in drainages and the rain can force them to move erratically, often taking cover at the nearest available shade – your house.
  4. Accompany dogs outside during their bathroom breaks and give the yard a quick check before allowing children to play in unprotected yards. If possible to let them out earlier in the day while it’s still hot, that may further decrease the chance of an unwanted rattlesnake encounter.
  5. If you do not already have a rattlesnake-protected property, consider having a rattlesnake fence professionally installed to keep rattlesnakes out even during periods of irregular behavior.
  6. If any rattlesnakes are seen on the property, do not approach them and call a professional to help.

Bullsnake or Gophersnake – What’s the difference? If you’re in Arizona, you may be surprised.

One of the most commonly-seen snakes in semi-urban areas in Arizona is also one of the most confusing. It’s brown, it’s big, it’s bad (if you ask its opinion, that is) and it’s … a Bullsnake? Gophersnake? Are those the same thing? Not really. If you live in Arizona telling the difference between a Gophersnake and a Bullsnake is easy:

Bullsnakes do not live in Arizona. All of the snakes that seem to be interchangeably called either Gophersnake or Bullsnake are all Gophersnakes. In Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties (where most of us live), they are all Sonoran Gophersnakes.

Bullsnakes and Gophersnakes are both real snakes, subspecies of the Gophersnake species Pituophis catenifer. In Arizona, we have two subspecies of Pituophis catenifer: the Sonoran Gophersnake, Pituophis catenifer affinis, and the Great Basin Gophersnake, Pituophis catenifer deserticola. What you do not see in this list of Arizona subspecies, however, is Pituophis catenifer sayi … the Bullsnake. And even more confusing, since sayi is a subspecies of the larger Gophersnake species, that means that while some Gophersnakes are also Bullsnakes, all Bullsnakes are also Gophersnakes. Whew.

The real Bullsnakes live throughout the central U.S., up into Canada, and down into Mexico. In the Southwest, their range ends to the West as it intergrades with Sonoran Gophersnakes in West Texas and eastern New Mexico. A great map of this distribution can be found here.

Is this that important? For most people, not really. While calling a Sonoran Gophersnake a Bullsnake is incorrect, the intent and general description of the snake and what it does are the same. If someone says they see a Bullsnake on their patio, it’s definitely not a Bullsnake, but I do know exactly what they are talking about. In this way the common name still does its job in providing a general description of what it is, and also highlights the difference in utility between use of common names and the more precise latin nomenclature.

Either way, Gophersnakes are harmless animals that are absolutely wonderful to have around the house and the best free rodent control you can get.

Photos of each below:

Sonoran Gophersnakes (the kind we have here in central and southern Arizona)

Bullsnakes (photos by Chad Whitney)

 

 

 

 

The monsoon is here. Are rattlesnakes more active?

After months of brutally hot and dry conditions, the valley was absolutely hammered with rain and wind last night. The longer a person lives in Arizona, the more they learn to love such events. This is certainly true for native Arizonans, including rattlesnakes.

As humidity increases, rattlesnakes that have been hiding deep under cover have been emerging in small groups at the entrance of these safe areas, hoping for some rain. When the first sprinkles do come falling down, the rattlesnakes coil and gather rain on their scales, then drink it from any surface they can. While most of us were swearing in traffic or huddled at the office window watching palm leaves fly through the air, rattlesnakes all across the valley were sitting out in the open waiting for their first drink in awhile. The long wait is finally over – another foresummer survived.

To quickly address what you may be hearing out there: yes, monsoon weather does increase rattlesnake activity.

So what is next in the life of a rattlesnake? Does the monsoon make them more active?

In short, yes. Though rattlesnakes are active all year to varying degrees, the monsoon moisture brings the greatest period of activity of all. In just a few short months, they need to shed their skin (at least once), eat, mate, have babies, eat again, mate, establish dominance over new areas, travel to birthing, shedding, and hunting areas, and more. They are very active and this means that they can show up in surprising places more than other times in the year.

It’s not just the moisture and a chance to drink that brings them out – temperature is a primary driving force that dictates most rattlesnake activity. When the rain finally comes, the temperature stabilizes into a much more survivable, and predicable, range of temperatures. Daytime temperatures drop, nighttime temperatures stay put, and overcast skies can mean a longer, slower climb into lethal temperatures each day. This makes heading out into the world in search of mates or food a much less dangerous activity, and rattlesnakes begin to cover ground much more than in previous weeks. Under the darkness of a new moon in the monsoon humidity, rattlesnakes can be found moving in great numbers everywhere in Arizona.

This may not mean that people are more likely to run into them. Unlike the active period in the Spring, much of their activity takes place at night. That means that while they may be more active than any other time during the year, much of the contact time that can overlap with human behavior takes place right at sunup and shortly after. That means that we will get a few relocation calls each day from people surprised by a rattlesnake sleeping by the front door as they leave for work, but much of the rest of the day is pretty quiet. that is, until the babies start to move.

What happens when baby rattlesnakes are born?

Starting in mid July (now), some rattlesnakes begin to give birth. Rattlesnakes give live birth and do not lay eggs, and will stay with their babies for a period of time afterward. Once the baby rattlesnakes have shed their skin, they head out into the big scary world to eat and figure out how to be a rattlesnake.

As they wander, they often get into a lot of trouble. We find baby rattlesnakes in all kinds of terrible situations – stuck in glue traps, squished all over roadways, and crawling around in conditions that no self-respecting adult rattlesnake would ever be caught out in. This is bad news for home owners near areas where rattlesnakes live, since the likelihood of random encounters may be higher. However, unlike what is often the case with larger and older rattlesnakes, a visit from a newborn rattlesnake may not be for any particular reason but close proximity to desert areas, and may not actually indicate a rattlesnake “problem”.

What can be done to avoid rattlesnakes during monsoon season?

Even when rattlesnake activity is at its peak, the usual rules apply: stay aware, avoid putting hands and feet into places you can’t see, and keep the yard clean. If your backyard looks anything like mine does right now after last night’s massive storm, debris and leaf litter can be all over and be used as cover for rattlesnakes. Do what you can to keep debris to a minimum, rodent populations in check, and assume that any dark place has a rattlesnake in it until proven otherwise. If you live near an area where you may have random rattlesnake traffic, now would be a good time to pull the trigger on getting a rattlesnake fence installed, before the babies come. If you do have a rattlesnake fence already, use the pen test to see if your fence is good enough to really do the job.

Even though rattlesnakes are pretty much having a party right now, it doesn’t mean you need to worry too much. Just stay aware, and enjoy the rain!