Sometimes, but it’s not an absolute, and should not be used as a single method for identification of either species.
The general rule is that Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes have a banding on the tail in a roughly 1:1 ratio of white to black, while Mojave Rattlesnakes tend to have tail banding at 2:1 white to black. However, it can be much more complex than that.
While it is generally true that Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes tend to have wider white bands compared to Mojave Rattlesnakes, this can be problematic. Both Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes and Mojave Rattlesnakes have banded tails with a high degree of variability in color, pattern, and complexity.
Here is a video that explains all of this:
In general, when identifying a rattlesnake, it is not advised to focus on any single feature. Instead, more accurate identifications can be made by looking at the gestalt, or overall appearance and culmination of attributes of the animal. The tail banding is one feature that can be a clue to help someone unfamiliar with both species differentiate between them, but is not enough to make an absolute identification.
The same can be said for almost any feature, including the 2-scales between the eyes method. As an example, this Mojave Rattlesnake has 3 of these scales. In a quick post to our snake identification page on Facebook, this lead many people to incorrectly identify this snake as a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, when the overall appearance is clearly that of a Mojave Rattlesnake.
One of the biggest questions we get each November, when homeowners are surprised that snakes keep showing up in their social media feed: When do snakes go to sleep?
For snakes, that answer can be complicated. Snakes don’t really hibernate in the winter in the sense most of us are familiar with. Instead, they go into a state called brumation. During brumation, snakes live in their dens, but they’ll come out to bask in the sun on pleasant winter days.
Rattlesnakes in the Phoenix and Tucson areas can generally be found at the dens from October through March. When people see them basking outside of their dens, it sends waves of panic through news outlets, who report that snakes are coming out earlier that year. They say the same thing every year, even though snakes emerge right on time.
Their move towards dens (ingress) and out of dens (egress) is prompted by average temperatures, and other factors. If there are a few warm days in January, rattlesnakes might come out to bask and be spotted by people, but they are not starting their spring activity yet. They know not to leave their dens completely before temperatures have stabilized.
What makes a rattlesnake den?
Rattlesnakes choose very specific dens with steady temperatures during the coldest months. In the wild, these include large rock piles and caves with deep access. They know what’s best, even choosing the direction that the entrance faces.
On certain days, you’ll find rattlesnakes outside of their dens, basking in a mixture of shade and sunlight that brings their bodies to a comfortable temperature. They might be under a bush, between rocks or in the corners of a patio. This can be very surprising for homeowners.
Rain, too, can get snakes moving even on the coolest of days. In our area, rain is rare, and a drink is always welcome. A cloudy, drizzly day in the mid 60’s in January is an excellent day to see rattlesnakes on the surface.
If you see one snake between November and March, there may be a higher possibility that more might be denning in the same area. Rattlesnakes can den communally without many territorial problems. If you see a snake in the area during the winter months, it’s important to be very careful and watch for other snakes. In our warm climate, those dens are usually small, with just a few individuals. You’ve probably seen photos online of holes with hundreds of rattlesnakes pouring out of holes in the ground, but that’s not how it looks in Arizona.
Rattlesnakes may return to the same den year after year. This can be interrupted when construction or landscaping changes the area, destroying the den that the snake is trying to find. In that case, the snake will wander to the next best area. Homeowners frequently see rattlesnakes on their properties after construction begins.
What to do in the winter to keep your home rattlesnake free.
If you live in a desert area, it’s still important to watch for snakes in the winter.
Look where you’re walking.
Make sure to check your yard before letting young children play outside.
If you’re having landscaping changed, or if construction begins in your area, keep a watchful eye out for wandering snakes.
If you see a snake, call us at ——-. One of our removal experts can relocate the snake and check your property. Something you may also want to consider is having a Rattlesnake Fence professionally installed in your yard. No matter what, when the snakes “wake up” in early March, you’ll want to be ready for it.
For as common as they are, and as often as people see them, the Longnosed Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei) is almost unknown to most of us.
Why is this? It seems to be due to a superficial similarity to a very well-known snake, the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae). A mild-mannered, white-and-black banded snake that appears from time to time in backyards throughout Arizona, Kingsnakes are famous for their preference of rattlesnakes as a food source. They look quite a bit like the lesser-known Longnosed Snakes, but have a few key differences.
First, it should be said that Longnosed Snakes are completely harmless. They’re eaters of lizards, reptile eggs, and small rodents. I’ve never had one attempt to bite me over hundreds individuals handled. They do have a tendency to poop on the hands of the holder, however, and even bleed from their cloaca as a further action to say “hey, don’t eat me, I’m gross.” It must work, because I’ve never eaten a Longnosed Snake!
Longnosed Snakes live on the ground, and are mostly nocturnal, though they can be seen moving at any time of day in certain conditions. I most often encounter them as they move from hole to hole in the desert soil, poking their namesake nose in to see if there’s anything good to eat inside. They can get large, up to about 3′ in length, though most adults are a little more than 2′ long. They’re one of the few snakes that has become well-adapted to highly developed areas and can be found far from natural desert areas. Specifically, the Paradise Valley area, with its lush and green backyards that also tend to be huge, are home to a large number of Longnosed Snakes.
How to tell the difference between a Longnosed Snake and a Kingsnake
While some Longnosed Snakes are just black and white, most have some red, pink, or orange coloration as well. The pattern is most often more of a loose, jumbled or “pixelated” appearance, some having full red bands along with the black and white. Others just have a bit of a pinkish wash over the back, but it’s quite visible. Kingsnakes never have this coloration, so even a little pink or orange is enough to tell one from the other.
As the name implies, Longnoses Snakes have, wait for it … a long nose. It’s longer and more pointed than the round snout of a Kingsnake. It can be difficult to tell without seeing a lot of both without a direct comparison, but it’s clear when they are side-by-side.
Longnosed Snakes also often have grey or white smudges within each black band. Kingsnakes, while their pattern is very often far from perfectly-formed, don’t mix it up like this.
How to quickly differentiate a Longnosed Snake from a Kingsnake:
Longnosed Snakes have red, pink, or orange coloration. Kingsnakes do not.
Some Longnosed Snakes have red or orange eyes. Kingsnakes’ eyes are black or black and white.
Longnosed Snakes have a longer, pointed nose than Kingsnakes.
Longnosed Snakes may have white or grey smudges within the black bands, while Kingsnakes bands are completely black.
Why does it matter to know the difference?
I’ve always found this mentality odd, but it’s a question that’s posed enough (usually angrily, for some reason) that it should be addressed. If you are one of the many people who come to anger over facts that you don’t personally value, you are correct: knowing the difference between a Longnosed Snake and a Kingsnake is not likely something you’ll ever need to know. However, if you’re scared of snakes (most likely the reason for the above-mentioned attitude), knowing more about them is how you fix that.
Both Longnosed Snakes and Kingsnakes are completely harmless and not an issue at all to find in your yard or home, but for the snake-phobic, knowing what you’re looking at at 2 a.m. in your kitchen may be the difference between going back to sleep or not.
Longnosed Snakes tend to be found within homes more often than Kingsnakes. It could be because they seem to be more commonly encountered in general. It could also be because they tend to lay their eggs in areas around homes where they get inside more often. Flowerbeds, lantana bushes, and eroded material between pavement and the foundation are common spots for this to occur.
When baby Longnosed Snakes hatch, generally in the first few weeks of August, they seem to appear everywhere. Any social media or community group will have daily photos of baby Longnosed Snakes, asking “what is this?”, and a stream of incorrect identifications of a Kingsnake. While Kingsnakes do get into homes from time to time as well, they are not nearly as adept at doing so as the smaller, less-famous Longnosed Snake.
Aren’t sure? Send us a photo!
Many people are surprised to learn that Longnosed Snakes exist at all, let alone are the true identity of decades of “Kingsnake” encounters. If you have a snake photo that you’re not quite sure of, email it to us and we’ll tell you what it is.
Along with many hundreds of rattlesnakes each year, harmless and beneficial reptile species are often captured and moved a short distance at the request of Arizona homeowners. Gophersnakes, Kingsnakes, Groundsnakes, Coachwhips – even lizards such as Chuckwallas – are gently stuffed into a bucket and escorted elsewhere.
This leads to an obvious and common question that we are asked when this is discussed. Why would anyone want to move a harmless species of snake from their yard? And, why would an ethical wildlife services business do so when asked? These are very good questions, and rather than mention it in our social media comments, I’ll address the topic here so it can be answered in detail.
Before diving in, it’s important to understand the goals of snake-relocation and prevention as a practice. There are many ethical considerations that sometimes conflict with one another, and having clear criteria laid out can help form best-practice procedures. There are many masters to serve, and balance between them is not cut and dry. Some are of equal importance, where any action must take multiple priorities into consideration.
Primary considerations of equal weight for any action:
Benefit to the snake. Is the action impact survivable and justified?
Benefit to the homeowner. Are residents and pets made safer by action?
Benefit to community. Is the public perception of wildlife positively affected by action?
Additional considerations that help shape decision-making, but are always secondary to the primary goals:
Benefit to education/research. Is there information or a teachable opportunity gained by action?
Benefit to ___insert relocation org here___. Does action help advance the operation and ability to positively affect primary goals?
Ultimately, capturing and relocating snakes must progress one goal above all else: peacefully mitigate immediate wildlife conflict while providing long-term, sustainable alternatives. Snake relocation is the quick fix, snake fencing, education, research, and ongoing outreach are the long game; the latter category should perpetually attempt to put the former out of business.
Why would a homeowner want to get rid of a beneficial snake, like a Kingsnake or Gophersnake?
Desert-savvy homeowners know that there is no better friend to have in the backyard than these large, harmless snakes. They are amazing, free pest control, in the very least. Some, like Kingsnakes and Coachwhips, even eat rattlesnakes (not Gophersnakes, contrary to popular belief, but that’s a subject for a different article). They don’t hurt anyone, including kids and dogs, as they quietly patrol the neighborhood looking to take out rodents wherever they find them.
The only downside? Simply, some people just do not like snakes. That dislike is most often synonymous with fear. Regardless of the type, aside from any knowledge, a deep cultural-phobia persists for many (I covered much of this in an earlier article about pre-summer mental preparation for the snake-phobic along with some resources if you’re firmly in the “hate snakes” crowd.)
Fear of snakes runs deep – at an individual basis and as part of our culture – and it is not easily fixed. From the outside (as occasional criticism from armchair conservationists seems to indicate) it may seem like all that’s needed to convince someone that the Gophersnake in the backyard is nothing to worry about are some quick facts. The reality is much more complicated.
We do our best to educate and provide as many alternatives as possible. We make sure that people know that the snake in their yard is harmless and will leave on its own. We also have the experience to know when that knowledge alone isn’t enough. In these instances, the situation is best handled by action. The snake can be safely escorted from the property and is not killed by terrified homeowners, who likewise benefit from the educational experience.
Why do you relocate harmless snakes instead of just educating the homeowners?
Based on the goals detailed in this article, sometimes offering knowledge alone will not create the desired outcome. It is important to understand the motivation of the caller, and be able to approach the situation regardless of the most ideal scenario.
In a perfect world, someone calling a snake removal group, who learns that the Gophersnake they’re looking at is harmless and will leave on its own, will thank the hotline operator and ignore the snake. This does happen quite often, but not always.
Fear of snakes is often not a purely logical process. While lack of knowledge and experience is a large component of fear, why and how it affects a person is not so simple that it can be eliminated by throwing interesting facts at it.
Apathy is another foe of education-only conflict mitigation tactics. Many people simply do not care or want to think about the snake in their yard – they just want it gone. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, ignorant, etc. … most people just don’t think all that much about snakes. That’s an odd expectation to have as a prerequisite prior to helping them. New information will not be valued by a person who doesn’t value non-essential knowledge, and that’s ok.
A person with a deep fear of snakes is not likely to be positively affected by learning that the Kingsnake on the patio is harmless and eats rattlesnakes. “I know, but I have kids.”
The guy that just moved into a home on a golf course and doesn’t know who David Attenborough is doesn’t care how cool the Nightsnake in his kitchen is. “It eats scorpions? Cool story bro. I’m killing it.”
We have learned the hard way what happens when idealism supercedes reasonable action. – dead snakes. We get emails and texts every day of decapitated and hacked-up snakes, many of which were well known to be entirely harmless.
Tasked with resolving the conflict between a snake and a person, it is not useful or reasonable to abandon both when the scenario is not convenient.
Conservation outreach is not a job best performed by robots.
For people who enjoy snakes, it can be difficult for us to empathize and act appropriately in these situations. Those who choose to work with the public need to not forget that “the public” is made of people. They should remember that, outside of nature centers and Facebook groups where people intentionally seek and value information, is everyone else.
Do you have anxiety when you fly? Here are reports and data that show how amazingly safe flying is, reading the entirety of which will not make a dent in how a nervous flyer feels on the runway. If this situation doesn’t apply to you, replace flying with whichever fear you have. Does anything change? Would it still change if you perhaps thought differently or had a different personality?
If you’re the type that creates or shares memes and information online to educate people about snakes (or anything, really), consider who you are talking to and why they should care before you do. If you routinely say “herp” or find yourself annoyed when someone mixes up venomous and poisonous, this article is for you. Don’t forget that educating people involves, primarily: people.
Sidenote: the elephant in the room.
Yes, we make money from it. We do try our best to provide as many free services as possible to teach people what these harmless snakes are and that they can just be ignored, but if the situation requires one of our team to spend time on-site, there’s a fee involved to cover our time. That can be seen as an issue for some, but it allows us as an organization to exist and be staffed by experienced professionals with more than a passing interest. That potential for ethical conflict is understood and great care is taken to make sure that whenever possible, these situations can be resolved by information alone. There’s always going to be the “all business is evil; all profit is corrupt” sect of young conservationists who dislike what we do, and that is ok.
You may have seen the photos of two rattlesnakes “standing up” next to each other. Half of their bodies are up off the ground, rising from the grass or brush. It looks like a beautiful mating dance, but the reality is even more dramatic.
Those rattlesnakes are actually two males in combat. A third snake, which is female, will be somewhere nearby.
If two male rattlesnakes meet while tracking a female rattlesnake, they may begin this combat. The males will raise their heads up together and begin to wrestle. They’ll twist together and try to knock each other against the ground.
They might fight for seconds or many minutes, but the winner of the battle will stay and mate with the female rattlesnake. The losing opponent will generally flee.
Sometimes, a young male will approach an older, larger male who is sitting near a female. The older male might chase the younger male away without a fight. We saw one instance where an older male chased a young male off of a small cliff and into a tree.
It seems counterintuitive. Why would rattlesnakes wrestle when they have extremely potent venom? Rattlesnakes are more social than many people realize. They don’t usually bite each other (of course, there can be cases of rattlesnakes biting each other if they confuse a snake for the prey they are tracking). Plus, there’s no reason to waste venom that’s needed for protection against predators and catching meals. Many animals have rutting behavior that is not meant to seriously injure or kill their opponent, but show who’s toughest.
So what do mating rattlesnakes actually look like?
There is a real mating dance that amorous rattlesnakes perform. The male will do a twitching dance with their head against the female. The rattlesnakes will flick their tongues and flip their tails. This dance happens on the ground, without any of the upright posturing that combatting males do.
If you see two males fighting in your yard or on a trail, be on the lookout for the nearby female. Do not approach the rattlesnakes and do not let your children or dogs go near the snakes. This is just one more example of the highly social nature of rattlesnakes.
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.
No. Use your pool noodles to noodle as much as you can noodle. Though some recent news may make it seem as if rattlesnakes and pool noodles have something to do with one another, it’s really a another mix of slow-news-day meets non-issue.
Pool toys stacked in the corner, or in this case, against a block wall, can create a shaded, damp area that is much cooler than the surrounding exposed yard. This can be very attractive to rattlesnakes trying to escape the summer heat, especially when the pool toys are routinely stored in the same spot, and not often used. While a snake being actually inside of a pool noodle isn’t most likely a very common scenario, rattlesnakes using pool toys and being found under them is very common and one of our go-to spots whenever we do a property inspection, looking for the kinds of places that rattlesnakes are found in the yard.
What you can do to avoid rattlesnakes showing up near your noodles:
Keep your pool toys up off the ground, or in a box
Store them in a place that can get hot, and avoid areas alongside the home that receive more shade than other areas
If you don’t have a box or can’t keep them up off the ground, change the location of where you store them each time you use them.
Make sure to never store pool toys in an area where rodents are digging holes, or access to other cover exists
Keep pool toys away from other pool equipment, like the pump area, and especially from decorative rock features and plants
Mostly, though, take the story with a grain of salt, and don’t let it stop you from enjoying the pool. There are some aspects of the story that seem a little bit fishy, like a “very large” rattlesnake being in a space only a little larger than an inch in diameter, and the report of other snakes being in there, too. If it were mid-July, I can see how a rattlesnake could possibly be giving birth to other rattlesnakes in something like a pool noodle, but this early in the year, it’s very unlikely. I have personally found a mother Western Diamondback Rattlesnake with her newborn babies in pool toys several times, but if you do as the items above suggest, it shouldn’t be something to worry about at your house. Store this one in your mental list of things to worry about somewhere between “wiggly wheel on a shopping cart” and “I asked for no mayo and this has mayo on it”.
Rattlesnake peak-activity is just around the corner, and we’re all about to see a lot of reports of snake sightings on Arizona trails. Almost as common are declarations like “that’s it for hiking for me this year!”. That’s unfortunate, since seeing rattlesnakes in Arizona’s natural areas is one of the most amazing things about this state. I can imagine that not everyone feels this way, but not to worry … even for people who are deathly afraid of snakes, there’s really not much to worry about. Having had about every type of rattlesnake encounter a person can over years of working professionally with rattlesnakes in wild settings, here’s what you need to know to stay safe, fang-free, and enjoy Arizona’s amazing trails. Stay safe and keep hiking!
If I miss anything or you have a specific question that should be answered, post it in comments and I’ll edit/answer in the blog.
1. Understand what “aggressive” means.
This is a perspective shift that can help hikers stay safe by just having reasonable expectations about what actually happens when you run into a rattlesnake out there. A common question we are asked is “which rattlesnake is most aggressive?”, and the answer, is no rattlesnake is aggressive!When they’re threatened, however, they can quickly become defensive. That might sound like word games, but they mean completely different things when describing how a snake behaves. An aggressive animal is the instigator, it attacks without provocation and seeks interaction. A defensive animal avoids confrontation, but will defend itself and try its best to prevent its early demise.
The latter more accurately describes rattlesnakes, and how they respond to hikers. When a hiker sees a rattlesnake on a trail (or hears it!) buzzing away and standing tall, this is not a sign that it’s about to attack. A rattle is not a battle cry! It’s just a warning, saying “hey, just letting you know I’m here, so let’s not meet!” It’s actually quite considerate if you think about it.
Rattlesnakes can’t eat us, have no reason to attack us, and really, they have no idea what we are. If rattlesnakes were actually aggressive, not one of us would survive a hike in any natural area in Arizona, and I’d certainly be dead several times over. Fortunately, they’re not, and you can breathe a sigh of relief that personal stories about rattlesnakes attacking unprovoked are very overblown.
Here’s a video I took in early 2018 at a rattlesnake den in Cave Creek, Arizona, that shows their behavior when they’re being scared. Even though I was pretty close to them, I was never in any danger. This is the side of rattlesnakes most people never hear about, and doesn’t make for dramatic stories at the watercooler.
How does this keep a hiker safe from rattlesnakes? This is the perspective that makes all other steps for rattlesnake safety possible. Having reasonable, realistic context for what is actually happening when you see a rattlesnake can completely change how you perceive and remember it. It will also help you make decisions based on logic, rather than fear, and the adrenaline that may be blasting through your veins.
And … I know what you may be thinking. You may have had an experience with a rattlesnake that seemed aggressive. A strike out of nowhere, no rattling, or even a memory of one coming after you. This is a complicated topic, but to make it as short as possible: our brains do strange things, especially when confronted with something we fear. I’ll address some aspects of this in other parts of this article … but this is another topic altogether.
2. Get to know the snakes in your area.
This could be a painful truth for the most snake-phobic of us, but learning and exposure can help ease even the greatest fears. As stated in the previous item, the context that exists in our minds can greatly influence how we handle a situation, and how we remember it. If you just roll with the cultural bias and loads of misinformation out there about rattlesnakes, you may have a much worse mental perspective and lesser ability to do the right thing when a snake appears.
This doesn’t mean you have to become a snake handler to conquer your fear. Rather, a bit of online exposure can do wonders. From our experience working with many thousands of people who really would rather not have met a snake in their garage, knowing the difference between a Gophersnake and a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is what makes the difference between getting any sleep that night. There are many online resources for identification and some basic learning. This list of commonly seen snakes in Arizona covers most of the ones people run into. There are also area-specific resources, like this website we put together that shows which snakes can be found in Cave Creek, Arizona, and information about them. Don’t forget, too, that you can always send us a photograph of any snake and we’ll identify it and answer any questions you have (this doesn’t cost anything of course).
Another thing you can do is to visit your local County park or zoo and see a rattlesnake in person. Of course this feels different when it’s behind glass, but getting an up-close look can really change how your brain handles these situations. Better yet, attend a rattlesnake safety or rattlesnake education class near you.
3. Keep your hands and feet where you can see them.
This one can be a little bit tough, depending on where you are hiking. Rattlesnakes spend a lot of their time hiding, and most of the other time they have is spent sitting in ambush, waiting for a rodent, lizard, or bird to come along. That means that you can avoid many of the situations where rattlesnakes could come into contact with your feet and hands by simply making sure that you see where you are putting them. A rattlesnake sleeping away the day behind a log has no idea what a trail is, and when your foot and full weight come crashing down suddenly, what’s a snake to do but defend itself?
When setting up camp, or even grabbing your pack after a break in the shade, be sure to look where you put your hands. I’ve had a rattlesnake crawl onto my camera bag while it was on the ground (while I was photographing another rattlesnake a short distance away), and may have been bitten if I hadn’t had it so built-in at this point to look where I put my hands.
On most trails, this is pretty easy. But what about scrambling up flatiron, or wading through grass and rock around Paria canyon? That can be more difficult, but in general, do what you can to avoid these situations. There are trails for a reason, which leads to our next section:
4. Stay on designated trails
There are many reasons why you should stay on the trail. Aside from the more often-discussed reasoning of keeping the area pristine and avoiding degradation of the natural habitat we’re out there to enjoy, staying on-trail is the easiest and surest way to avoid rattlesnakes.
Just like most of us, rattlesnakes avoid stressful situations. In places where there is heavy human activity, they’ll modify their behavior to stay hidden and avoid potentially dangerous situations. From what many of us who have been watching rattlesnakes hunt right alongside trails for years know very well, they’re pretty good at it. While there are some often great hunting opportunities near trails, sitting right in the middle of a trail that has feet, bikes, and dogs on it every day isn’t a great success strategy, so they don’t do it. When a rattlesnake is seen on a trail, it’s most often just crawling across it, or just off-trail buzzing away because it’s scared of the sudden appearance of a backpack-wearing primate. Rattlesnake bites to the legs of people who are hiking on trails are very rare.
This brings up another common question: what do you do if you see a rattlesnake on a trail and it won’t leave? This one is easier than you’d think … you go around it. There really are very few situations where a person can’t just go around a rattlesnake on a trail. Yes, this seems to contradict what I’d just said by asking you to perhaps go a few feet off-trail for a very short distance, but it’s not a big deal and very different than the over-land trail blazing that produces rattlesnake encounters.
If you can’t go around, then back off and get out of sight for a few minutes. When a rattlesnake is standing up in a defensive posture, it’s doing it because it is scared of you and does not want to give up a defensive position that seems to be working. When the “predator” (aka: YOU) gets out of sight, the snake will quickly take the opportunity to get out of there! In fact, a lot of the snakes that I see pictures of that are “sunning” on a trail actually look to be snakes that were just crawling across the trail, and stop when they see you coming, hoping their camouflage will do the trick. Drop out of view for a little bit and it will continue on its way … or just walk around the thing and continue on. If it’s really in a place that you can’t get around and it just won’t go away … maybe it’s time to try another trail.
Here’s a video of a rattlesnake we saw eating what it thought was a bird right alongside a trail in a popular hiking area.
5. Don’t wear headphones when you hike.
Rattlesnakes have a really great feature that does a great job keeping us from stepping on them – the rattle. When you get too close to a wary rattlesnake, it sounds off to let you know that you’re getting too close. As scary as it might seem when this happens, the result of you going one way and the snake going the other is how that’s supposed to work; that’s the system working.
How do you ruin a good thing? Replace the sounds of birds and wind winding through desert canyons with the same sounds you listen to while stuck in traffic. When you have headphones on, you’re opting out of the built-in safety features generously maintained by rattlesnakes. Even worse, if you’re blasting music for all to hear, you’re not only facing the danger of “silent” rattlesnakes, but from me throwing rocks at you.
6. Don’t touch, catch, pick up, or kill rattlesnakes.
You’d think this is an easy one, but hundreds of men each year must have skipped that day of Obvious 101. Though it is not correct to say that most bites happen because of intentional interaction, these actions are the single greatest cause of rattlesnake bites. There is no better way to be bitten by a rattlesnake than to purposefully touch the thing, so don’t do it.
There’s something about rattlesnakes that makes men want to pick them up. That might mean behind the head like they saw someone do on TV, or by the tail, or after they’ve crushed it with a rock. There is absolutely no reason to do this, and trust me, your Instagram post isn’t worth a potential multi-hundred thousand dollar helicopter ride to the hospital. While you might be confirming to your circle of friends that you’re the dumb one of the group, there are probably better ways to do it. Parkour? Cinnamon challenge? Paperclip eating contest? Who knows, but picking up rattlesnakes isn’t bright.
This can be extended to throwing pebbles, poking with sticks, and any of the actions that are seemingly irresistible to certain personalities. Really, take a breath, take a photograph, and keep hiking.
7. Killing a rattlesnake isn’t helping anyone. Don’t do it.
While we certainly don’t agree with people killing snakes found at home, due to the many alternatives and general ineffectiveness of it all, this is not that situation. There is absolutely no reason to kill a wild animal while out in a natural setting. You are not saving the life of the next hiker on the trail. You are not eliminating a threat and saving the day. If you can’t be outside without taking your rightful place as a respectful visitor, it’s probably time to hike somewhere more your style, like a treadmill.
In many places, it’s also illegal or against park rules. In many of the popular areas like city and county parks around Phoenix and Tucson, visitors are not allowed to destroy native wildlife and natural resources. Killing wildlife in these areas is right up there on the d-bag-o-meter with spray painting rocks and chiseling your name into petroglyph sites.
8. Keep your dog on a leash.
Based on a survey we’ve been sending to veterinarians and sharing with dog-owners to discover why and where dogs are bitten by rattlesnakes, we’ve learned that off-leash dogs are often bitten by rattlesnakes. In fact, an off-leash dog is the second most common way for dogs to be bitten (first is while going out to use the bathroom). We’ve always suspected this, but we were surprised to learn that dogs that are kept on-leash, as the law requires anyway, are almost never bitten by rattlesnakes! How can this be?
Most bites to dogs happen on the nose. That means that the dog didn’t just step on or surprise the snake, but is itself the aggressor. Dog’s don’t know what rattlesnakes are, and rattlesnakes certainly don’t know what a labradoodle is, so when a snake starts its warning buzz, dogs go to investigate. If your dog is on a leash, this isn’t a problem at all, because you have control of the situation. Off-leash dogs, on the other hand, walk up and are bitten right in front of their helpless owners. Yes, your dog may be very obedient and the best boy in the world, but don’t gamble his life to avoid a simple leash.
While on the subject of dogs:
9. Pick up your dog poop.
If you’re reading this while eating a sandwich, it might be good to put it down for a minute while we have real-talk about your dog’s poop.
On trails where dogs allowed (and common) how to maintain their poops is surprisingly controversial. The best and most simple answer is to just pick it up as you go. There are many products available to quickly pick up their little treasures and take them with you. Easy!
You’d think so, but that’s a lot of work for some of us. Some people just leave it where it falls. Others go as far as to put it in one of those little blue poop baggies, then leave it there to pick up on the way back. Aside from being illegal and inconsiderate to other hikes, what could go wrong? A lot. These bags often don’t actually make their way out off the trail. They are picked up by coyotes and other animals, blow off trails, are forgotten or left, or whatever other reason would cause someone to leave a plastic bag of dog crap in alongside a trail.
One group of animals that loves these little wrapped up treats are rodents. Rodents get into these bags like its the morning after halloween and munch away. Woodrats carry them off and stick the bags in their middens, and even rabbits will graze on trail tootsies when they find them.
What does this have to do with rattlesnakes? Simple: your dogs poop is attracting rattlesnakes to the edges of trails. Though rattlesnakes near trails aren’t really a threat to people (as you’ve been reading so far), it’s not necessarily a great thing to encourage them to set up ambush right along the path. Anything that attracts rodents will attract snakes, too. This goes for apple cores and orange peels, too. Just pick it up.
10. Have a plan.
Despite all of this, accidental rattlesnake bites do happen in Arizona. On trails and while hiking, it’s not something that happens often enough to say things like “done hiking for the year!” at the first snake sighting, but it’s something to be aware of. The best thing you can do is just make sure that you have a plan.
While it doesn’t really sit well with most of us, there isn’t much that you can do first-aid-wise if you are bitten by a rattlesnake. As is posted by now on countless hiking safety blog posts, here are the basic do’s and don’ts:
DO call 911 immediately and do what they say.
DO remain calm, remember that you’ll survive, and try and rest until help arrives.
DO remove any jewelry, tight clothing, or anything that could be a problem with swelling.
Don’t kill or capture the snake – it’s irrelevant.
Don’t use a suction device, snake bite kit, or whatever grandma potion you think works.
Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911. Seriously.
Don’t wait around to see if it’s a dry bite. Treat all rattlesnake bites as an emergency until a doctor tells you otherwise.
I’m often asked about what to do if you’re bitten by a rattlesnake when you’re really far off trail, out of cell range for days, and nobody knows where you are or when to expect you. The answer is to plan ahead! In that situation, if you’ve really put yourself in a place where you have no chance of emergency assistance if something goes wrong, then a rattlesnake bite isn’t any more deadly to you than a broken leg. If you do this sort of hiking, get a satellite phone and think it through.
If you have one of those useless snake bite kit in your backpack, here’s a short instructional video I made about its proper use:
The short version:
How do you stay safe from rattlesnakes while hiking?
Understand that they are defensive, not aggressive.
Know what you’re looking at: educate yourself.
Keep your hands and feet where you can see them.
Stay on designated trails at all times
Don’t wear headphones. The warning doesn’t work if you can’t hear it.
Don’t touch them, pick them up, kill them, etc.
Killing a rattlesnake on a trail isn’t helping anyone, and may be illegal.
Each year, when temperatures are highest and humidity is lowest, rattlesnakes mysteriously disappear from hiking trails. Our snake removal hotline is quiet, and people are more worried about keeping the air conditioning running than rattlesnakes.
But rattlesnakes are cold blooded, don’t they like the heat? A comment I often see on Facebook threads is that snakes love heat, the hotter the better, and when temperatures soar over 100F is when they are happiest. Really, this is completely wrong, and reptiles have just as much trouble in this excessive heat as other animals. It’s even deadly in many cases, and so they do what you’re probably doing right now while reading this: hiding someplace cool and waiting for it to end.
Estivation … kind of like the Arizona version of hibernation
If a rattlesnake doesn’t have a good place to hide when it is this hot, it’s in big trouble. A rattlesnake will die when its body temperature gets too far above 110F (Klauber, pg 418-420). If you try and get the mail barefoot at 9am, you know how tough it is for them. This also means that at temperatures reaching 119F like it did yesterday, just being outside in the shade is lethal to most snakes.
They have no choice but to find deep cover and wait it out. This is a method of estivation; reptiles hide in cool, safe places until conditions are more favorable. You’re probably familiar with hibernation, where animals hide from extreme cold until Spring … this is similar in concept, but in this case, an escape from hot, dry conditions. While it’s this hot, rattlesnakes hide and wait for the rain to come cool things down.
Where do rattlesnakes hide when it’s hot?
Rattlesnakes choose anywhere that offers stable, cooler temperatures as estivation sites. This could be underground in rodent burrows, natural caves in drainages and mountains, or riparian areas with higher humidity than surrounding areas.
They can also choose man-made spots to hide, like under homes or in abandoned buildings. A common place that we find them this time of year is in the garage, which is nothing but a cave if left open at night or not properly sealed. They may also use cool, wet areas in the backyard to beat the heat, like shaded pool filter areas and decorative landscaping. Generally, however, this time of year is low-activity for rattlesnakes, and you’re not as likely to see them out and about.
Some rattlesnakes do make an appearance at night outside of their chosen estivation sites, hoping for the one source of water that may be available to them: rodents. Some native rodents can actually produce water from seeds that they eat, meaning that to a rattlesnake, eating is the best way to get a drink. If you know where to look, these brutal conditions can have a restrictive effect that makes finding rattlesnakes incredibly predictable.
When do rattlesnakes go back to their normal activity?
When the monsoonal rain comes to the desert, the higher level of humidity brings stabilization to temperatures. That’s the signal to leave estivation sites and get out there. What happens next is the busiest rattlesnakes will be all year, from about mid-July until October, when they eat, give birth, and are generally quite active. Much of this activity is still at night when temperatures are more reasonable, but they are often seen in the early mornings on trails, and in the case of at least a few people each morning, on the front patio.
But for the next few weeks, rattlesnakes have much in common with the people of Arizona, and are indoors complaining about the heat and texting their friends in cooler climates with photos of their car thermometer freakout. Well, in spirit anyway.
Spring is here, and the annual Mojave Misinformation migration has begun. BS stories and local lore travel from the deserts of California though the Sonoran desert, stopping along the way to feed on the excitable click-bait of local news networks. Eventually this misinformation ends up in Eastern New Mexico, where brand new misinformation is born in places where this species doesn’t even exist. If you watch carefully, you can catch a glimpse of these “facts” as they pass through social media pages and community groups. The herd leaves its droppings along the way in massive amounts; be careful not to step in piles of “them is good eatin” or “need a new hatband” if you are in the outdoors.
The dreaded “mojave green” rattlesnake: monster of the desert …
Mojave rattlesnakes, or “mojave green” rattlesnakes, tend to get the most misinformation out of any species. This is speculation, but from what I have seen with the stories that form around other species, this is a case of personal communication. That is, this snake has a reputation for being overly aggressive and “nasty”, and is therefore a better conduit for people that would like to tell the world something about themselves. That could be a way to tell others that they are brave or adventurous, after tales of confrontations with the mojave monster and their fight to survive the attack, or just how much it doesn’t bother them to come into contact with such a menace on a regular basis. These individuals may also have stories of catching a record-sized fish that slipped away before anyone could get a photo, and has certainly been stalked by numerous mountain lions … and possibly bigfoot.
But of course, the real damage caused by intentional creation and spread of misinformation is that it can alter the context, though which people may perceive an encounter with a mojave rattlesnake, and how they remember it. A cloud of misinformation can distort that perception, and a person with an artificially increased sense of fear can actually remember things that didn’t happen, or remember them very differently. This distortion effect is well documented. That means that if a person spends years hearing and reading stories that are exaggerated in nature, it can change how they actually see a snake when it happens, and change the memory as well.
In this way, this sort of misinformation that transcends to local lore can create a cultural fear, where being scared of rattlesnakes is not only expected as a “common sense” mentality, and is even a point of local pride. Becoming educated on the matter becomes more difficult in these conditions, as the barriers are also social. I have experienced, personally, throughout my years of speaking in public about the reality of rattlesnakes, how this social barrier challenges education. When I am confronted with a story told about a 15′ Mojave Rattlesnake biting through a tractor tire, I cannot easily correct that statement with facts without accusing that person’s grandfather of being a liar.
Here are a few of the “facts” that regularly circulate on social media
The “Mojave green” rattlesnake is a not a hyper-aggressive, separate species of rattlesnake. Mojave Rattlesnakes can certainly be green, and even the brown ones look kind of green compared to the dull grey of their Western Diamondback counterparts. However, this can lead to confusion, where people misidentify any rattlesnake they see with a green coloration as a Mojave. A good example are the Blacktailed Rattlesnakes, found in mountains and regions where Mojaves either do not range, or do not use. Another are the reports of Mojave green rattlesnakes being found in parts of Eastern New Mexico where they do not live. When asked for photographs of them, I am emailed pictures of killed Prairie Rattlesnakes, with also look green. The reality is that, while Mojave Rattlesnakes are often green, the color green is not a good indicator for accurate identification.
Mojave Rattlesnakes are not aggressive. This one is a semantic issue, for the most part. An aggressive animal is one that prompts a fight … it comes after you, throws the first punch, initiates the interaction. Mojave Rattlesnakes are, in reality, very defensive. This may mean that they can rattle and strike with more enthusiasm than other types of rattlesnakes, but this is a defensive behavior. That is, it’s started by you. Even accidental acts like stepping on a rattlesnake, though an accident, are initiated by the foot doing the stepping. After that interaction has begun, a Mojave Rattlesnake may, as part of its defensive behavior, even advance towards a person, either to get away or defend itself from its perceived attacker. Perception, as well, can be distorted by fear. Our minds do not always tell us the truth, in favor of escape from a perceived dangerous situation. (Rachman S, Cuk M Behav Res Ther. 1992 Nov;30(6):583-9) Mojave Rattlesnakes, in my experience with them, are definitely more touchy as a whole, but nothing that will take aggressive action. In fact, if rattlesnakes of any species were truly aggressive, and engaged in intentional attacks on people walking by, none of us would ever survive a hike in the desert.
Mojave rattlesnakes are not coming out earlier this year. This is a story that local news throughout their range, and even in places where they aren’t found, like to run every single year. Rattlesnakes of all species are coming out right on time this year, as they have every other year this particular bit of misinformation has surfaced.
There is no such thing as a “mojave red” rattlesnake. The desire to use the term “mojave” can be so strong, that it’s oddly made its way to other rattlesnake species as local common names. “What is this rattlesnake that isn’t green and isn’t a diamondback? Well, I won’t impress anyone with saying I don’t know … so it must be a mojave … red!”. The most common rattlesnake to get the name are actually Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnakes, who appear red or pink in much of their range. However, I have also seen instances of Red Diamond Rattlesnakes, Panamint Rattlesnakes, and Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes get the “mojave red” treatment. In reality a mojave is a mojave is a mojave, red, green, or otherwise.
Mojave Rattlesnakes aren’t as big as many people claim. The largest confirmed Mojave Rattlesnake ever recorded is 48″ long, or 4 feet long (Schuett, Feldner, Smith, Reiserer, Rattlesnakes of Arizona, pg 568). Reality is that people just aren’t great at estimating size, especially at distance, from memory, or of an animal that causes anxiety or fear. Claims of a rattlesnake measuring a full third or more of the largest individual ever documented are common, which begs the question: why are the snakes researchers, scientists, students, or any of the many, many thousands of individuals that are documented so small? Weighing the entirety of both scientific documentation and anecdotal evidence by informed individuals with reports by a populace that loves to distort facts regarding rattlesnakes: there isn’t much of a question what is happening here. Mojave Rattlesnakes are a medium-sized snake, and an adult is usually in the 3′ range. My apologies to your uncle with the stories; it didn’t happen.
This post could go on and on, and perhaps it should. There are many, many more myths about this animal than this group, but this post and associated graphic may address the majority of posts I see on social media about these misunderstood snakes. Really, Mojave Rattlesnakes are not so bad. Viewed in context of wide-spread misalignment on reality, cultural pride in our “dangerous” animals, they are very scary indeed. The next time someone claims that an 8′ mojave rattler done chased their horse for a half a mile, remind them that you know better, and most other people do too.