It’s December, it’s cold (for Arizona), and the Rattlesnake Solutions relocation team is still busy. Instead of picking up rattlesnakes from patios and porches, we’re pulling Western Diamondbacks from garages and sheds. Whenever this happens, a common comment pops up – “why are there still rattlesnakes out there? It’s Winter, I thought they were hibernating?” What is going on?
The answer is easy enough – why aren’t rattlesnakes hibernating? (or brumating, as is more accurate, with a note on that later) They are, and the places we catch them are where they’re doing it. As we have covered in previous articles about just how and why rattlesnakes choose garages as prime den real estate, rattlesnakes in the warmer parts of Arizona tend to have quite a few options for a survivable winter refuge. When a rattlesnake is found in a garage on a cold December day, it’s likely been there since October, and where it is found is where it was brumating. This is not the same as being active, being “awake”, or any situation where an imagined extension of rattlesnake activity has been extended because of a few warm days or any other reason.
“If it’s cold why are rattlesnakes still out?”
They’re not, they’re in, and that’s where you found them.
These cold-weather sleepy rattlesnakes are often discoveries by people using the holiday downtime to get to long-neglected projects, like cleaning out the garage or tearing down the old shed in the yard. Another common one throughout December are rattlesnakes found under boxes of Christmas trees and other holiday decorations that have remained untouched in the deepest corner of the garage for 11 months. These discoveries are small rattlesnake dens, of only one or a handful of individuals,
Here is a trio of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes that I captured in a storage closet at an apartment complex in Cave Creek:
“But I saw a rattlesnake outside! Why isn’t it hibernating?”
As mentioned earlier, rattlesnakes don’t truly hibernate. Rather, they do something similar called brumation. This means they’re sleeping a lot and avoiding the cold, but if conditions are good for them, they may come sit at the entrance of their den and hang out or move around a bit. What conditions cause this to happen vary by species and location. Here in the Sonoran Desert, temperates can get chilly but not often dangerously cold, and moisture loss is a concern. They don’t necessarily choose sites that have a lot of sun exposure, or even avoid it altogether (Hamilton et al 2008). On some warm days, especially just before or after rain, or a bit of sun after a some winter sprinkles, rattlesnakes will often come to the surface to take advantage of it. That means that if you see a rattlesnake coiled in the backyard, it’s likely been in the area for quite awhile already, and is just coming out a short distance.
“I heard on the local news that rattlesnakes are coming out early, or are active longer this year because of the weather!”
There is no evidence to suggest this is happening, but somehow it’s still a news story each year. According to our call logs over the past decade, our observations, and other research, rattlesnakes are going into brumation (ingress) and coming out of it (egress) in about the same times as normal. That is, generally, in by the first of November, and out by the 15th of March. That means that the shoulder times around those dates are full of rattlesnakes moving around and traveling, so sightings may increase, even as general activity is considerably less than other times of year. This is when you should be keeping garages and gates closed.
How can I be rattlesnake-safe this Winter?
Refer to some earlier articles we’ve provided about rattlesnakes during the cooler months:
Do rattlesnakes chase people? Which is the most “aggressive”? Did a rattlesnake really attack my uncle?
These questions and comments, often the cause of online arguments, are a perfect example of just how far off the mark common perception is from rattlesnake reality. Why are herpetologists and professionals never chased by rattlesnakes, but others claim to be chased at every encounter? Why is there an apparent correlation between how much a person experiences wild rattlesnakes, and apparently calm demeanor.
There are a lot of reasons why someone may believe a rattlesnake chased them – misunderstanding behavior or context, fear response and perception, and many others. As I have found rattlesnakes and observed the variety of ways they attempt to evade the predator (me), there are certainly behavior that I could reasonably assume to be aggression if I didn’t know better, didn’t understand the intent, and certainly so if some adrenal fear response were added to the mix. Our perception and memories can be molded by our expectation and personal bias, as a lifetime of misinformation and context float to the surface the instant the rattle sounds off.
There are of course other reasons why rattlesnake chases are common stories, and they have nothing to do with snakes. Rattlesnakes hold a special place in our culture as a symbol of the West, and rattlesnake experiences (and how they are handled) can be easy tools to tell other people about ourselves. Rattlesnake encounters are a way of telling about our adventurous nature, our courage, or and other traits that have to do with our perceived identity than rattlesnake behavior. They’re also something people often love to hate, and are proud to fear.
Here’s the video:
Why do we, as a culture, hate rattlesnakes so much?
Yuck. Ick. Yikes. Scary. Huge! Kill it. Run. Shovel. It chased me to my house. It attacked my bike tire. It stalked me for hours. I had a showdown in a canyon and was trapped. On, and on, and on. These may be the real perception of many people, but what is really happening?
I’m not a psychologist, but I do work with rattlesnakes, so let’s just leave the human behavior aspect behind and see what happens with real rattlesnakes in wild situations. I recorded the approach, and sometimes contact, with 50 wild rattlesnakes to see if any of them will aggressively chase me. Watch to see what happened.
Do rattlesnakes chase people?
There may be a snake that is confused by what a human is and attempts to hide under the nearest cover, which may be us or our car.
There may be a snake confused by a flashlight and attempts to flee into it instead of away, unaware of where the “predator” is.
There may be a snake that is being interacted with and disturbed by someone actively looking for snakes that advances takes active and advancing defensive movement. Of course, if you’re messing with a rattlesnake and it continues to defend itself beyond your expectation or what you would prefer, that’s not aggression. If I’m asleep in my bed and a guy shows up and pokes me with a stick, my escort of that person out the front door is not an attack or a chase. For those of us that are herpers, don’t forget the context of the conversation here. Do rattlesnakes attack people hiking past them, or see someone and chase them into the house? Of course not.
If you disagree, just post a video of a rattlesnake chasing 🙂
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.
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!
Many people move to Arizona for our near-constant sunshine, and mild winters. These also make for perfect conditions for reptiles, which to the dismay of many homeowners, live in great numbers throughout the state. Where our neighborhoods meet the desert, an encounter with a snake every so often is just part of life.
The valley is home to 6 unique species of rattlesnake, all of which pack a harmful, venomous bite. A bite, which if logic prevails, is almost always optional. Rattlesnakes are on the menu for many desert predators. They’re nervous, shy, and like most animals, will try to prevent their own death when it is threatened. Rattlesnakes do not chase, jump at, or come after perceived predators, regardless of the numerous, fictional tales we as Arizonans are sure to hear. The fact is; rattlesnakes encounters are almost always harmless if in nature, and optional in our yards.
So what is the home owner to do, when a venomous visitor suddenly drops by one morning, coiled on the porch and going nowhere? The first thing to consider: nobody is in danger. The snake has been seen, and the only way anyone will be within range of a bite is if they put themselves there. Statistically, this is what many shovel-wielding husbands will do, becoming the single largest bite statistic, by far. A bite to the hand of a home hero can cost well over $100,000, cause incredible pain, and result in disfigurement and occasional death. Contacting a professional to remove the animal costs around $100, and is absolutely safe and humane.
Taking one step back – why is the snake there? Isn’t there some way to keep them from being there in the first place? Fortunately there is. Here are a few tips to keep your yard as rattlesnake-free as possible:
The desert is a hard place to live; make sure your yard isn’t an oasis. Rattlesnakes want food, water, and shelter. Deny those, and the yard is nothing interesting. Fix leaky hoses, keep the yard clean, and make sure all of the bushes are trimmed and free of dead plant material underneath.
If you have a view fence or wall surrounding the property, complete the barricade. Door sweeps and wire fencing can be installed to keep animals out. It’s a relatively inexpensive Saturday project for the handy, or contact a snake removal company to install it for you.
Forget the store-bought snake repellents and mothballs; they simply do not work. Many pest control companies will swear they do, but all research points to repellants being a smelly waste-of-money.
Dogs can be trained to avoid rattlesnakes by a number of businesses around the valley, and an inexpensive vaccine can be requested by most veterinarians. Keep dogs on a leash in desert areas, and have emergency information on-hand if you live near open, native desert.
Despite the very high number of snakes that are found here, bites still make the front page when they occur. It is a relatively rare event with an extremely low fatality rate, which somehow still occupies a place in our culture as a major threat to be feared by every desert home owner. As citizens in this amazing Sonoran habitat, it is the responsibility of all of us to be peaceful, well-informed co-inhabitants with the desert wildlife. Rattlesnakes may be the thing of nightmares to many, but that is an optional fear that, like most fears, fades to nothing with a willingness to learn and a touch of understanding.
In the valley, the most common places to run into a rattlesnake in your own yard are Cave Cree, Scottsdale, and other areas where there is a lot of development and contact with native areas.
Most Commonly Encountered Snakes in the Phoenix Area
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
VENOMOUS – Grey to tan in color, between 1’ and 4’ long. Easily identified by the distinct white and black banded tail, and rattle. Defensive in nature but easily avoided if encountered. Do not attempt to capture, kill, or otherwise interact with this snake.
BENEFICIAL – Also commonly misidentified as a “bullsnake”. Tan, yellow, or orange in color, with dark brown blotches, between 1.5’ and 5’in length. Defensive if attacked, but non-venomous and will not bite unless attacked. A gophersnake is great free pest control.
BENEFICIAL – Grey or dark brown with double rows of spots on the back, between 8” and 14” in length. Often confused with a baby rattlesnake due to elliptical eyes and triangular head. Absolutely harmless, this snake feeds on spiders and scorpions in the yard.
VENOMOUS – Highly variable, this snake takes the coloration of rock where it is found; orange, brown, white, or light grey. It is small, between 1’ and 3’ in length. If seen, do not approach this snake for any reason.
BENEFICIAL – Often confused with the kingsnake, this snake is between 8” and 3’ long. It eats lizards and their eggs. They are absolutely harmless, and can reduce rattlesnake-attracting prey in a yard.
BENEFICIAL – Black and white banding from head to tail, and between 1’ and 4’ in length. Kingsnakes consider rattlesnakes a primary food source, and are great to have on a property. They may bite if picked up, but are otherwise completely harmless.
BENEFICIAL – Fast, slender, and between 1’ and 5’ in length. May be black, olive, or red in color. This snake eats rattlesnakes and other prey items and should be kept as-is if seen. They will bite if picked up, but move away quickly if seen and are difficult to capture.
Research published in Science Magazine this month shows that the buy-in rate where a community adopts social change happens at a surprisingly-low tipping point: around 25%. This is where a shift towards change at a culture-level begins, and what was previously unmentionable becomes the new normal.
What does this have to do with rattlesnakes? Potentially a lot, actually. In much of the United States, Rattlesnakes are loathed at a community level. There are individuals and smaller groups of course who know better, and those of us who really enjoy them, but this is not socially popular in most places. In some areas, like much of Texas, killing rattlesnakes is a point of pride and so baked into the culture itself that is seems unlikely to ever change. Killing snakes is not just an aspect of ignorance; it is a point of pride in protecting property and pets. It is a part of identity, of a person and community; the brave protector, the outdoorsman, the lifestyle that city folks just can’t understand.
This seems like good news. So why is sharing this information with devoted snake-killers so difficult? Why are sections of society unwilling to take in information that is of such obvious benefit? Even if a person truly hates of fears these animals, why choose to cling to it?
The prevalent attitude towards changing minds when it comes to snakes is to educate, and only educate. This can work very well for those of us that value education and knowledge. But for many individuals, and in fact many aspects of our culture, it’s not going to change a thing. At a community level, the road to change the social benefit a snake killer receives from upholding socially-praised values is a very long one that may never truly change the cultural feedback loop. There are many reasons that cause people to kill snakes that have nothing to do with lack of knowledge or personal safety.
I believe there is bias towards education-only communications by many educators, because education and knowledge is of value to us. We enjoy learning, and consider being proven wrong a way to refine and better understand the world. But not everyone thinks this way. Not everybody welcomes potentially world-view changing information, especially when it is tied to personal identity, or their value as a member of society. Ultimately, education makes the difference, but we can’t ignore the social pressures that also drive this behavior.
Reaching the Tipping Point
Treat the needless killing of snakes as you would any other animal. Make it socially unacceptable to do so. Remove the social benefit that the killer receives from their action, and deny them the expected praise. Give information and educate as much as possible, but be aware enough to understand when you are being trolled or otherwise potentially even damaging the effort by doing so. In short – make the action of needless snake killers socially unacceptable, where the social benefit of being knowledgeable and reasonable on the topic is more desirable.
Experiment in your local community group on Facebook (or similar) – smaller groups are easier to work with. Educate wherever possible, but don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. Don’t get in long or drawn out arguments, just state your piece and go. Most importantly, support and uphold others who share your point of view with information and, yes, social praise. Focus less on changing the mind of a single person, but the overall attitude of the group. Make it socially beneficial to be informed and reasonable. Chip at it and watch what happens over time, as the general voice changes from “kill em all” to a more reasonable tone, and even one of pride in the diversity of wildlife in the area.
This is obviously a much more complex problem than will be fully addressed here, but fortunately the way that activism can affect social change is well documented.
This is the latest picture to be passed around social media to milk reactions from the snake-fearful. Yes, it is a real photograph, but the details you’ve read are probably way off.
I first saw this photo in a local community group here in Phoenix, Arizona, where it was quickly misidentified as a Gophersnake. It showed up on another soon after, misidentified as a rattlesnake. It’s since been appearing all over the internet, with more misleading information placing it in many states across the country, and even overseas.
What is it and where is it from?
This is not from Arizona (or almost all of those other places). The pattern and smooth, keel-less scales indicate that this is a Ratsnake; a harmless constrictor that is common across much of the mid-to-eastern US. (I’ll work on getting a more specific location by asking some more ratsnake-savvy friends).
“My Uncle Found This”
More interestingly is the social context that this provides, and another peek into the cultural freak-out that happens whenever a snake shows up in unexpected places. When this photo appears, it very often does so with a claim by the poster that this is somehow tied to them directly and personally. This is “their” shoe, or the shoe of their brother, or co-worker, etc. Similar to stories that are passed around of “giant rattlesnakes” that really aren’t, this image seems to be a useful tool for some personality types.
Does snakes really show up in shoes?
Yes. Any place that can be used to hide may be used. This is a good case for keeping your shoes indoors if you live in a place where snakes do and you aren’t a fan of surprise snakes.
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 you 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, rattlesnakes emerge from Winter dens and start making an appearance. While the weather each day or week does influence what the snakes do when they are ready to come out, it doesn’t have as much of an impact as most people think.
Take this year, for example. We got hot, early. February saw temperatures in the low 80’s for days, and the calls of “rattlesnakes are coming out early!” were all over Facebook. A few people saw them while hiking or sitting outside a garage, and that seems enough to make the declaration.
Were they really coming out early, though? Not at all. Along with those 80F highs were overnight lows in the high 30’s … that’s a temperature swing of almost 50 degrees in a matter of hours. For snakes, this means that at around 11am, when they would otherwise be sitting out on a reasonable February day, they face a situation where the rocks are lethally hot on top, and too cold to move underneath. To associate rattlesnake behavior with warm temperatures simply because they are cold-blooded is an extreme oversimplification of their behavior, and “warm weather = snakes!” is just not true.
What does happen, and certainly did this February: warm weather brings out more people. More hikers on the trails means more chances for an encounter.
The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake dens that I monitor each year to see how activity is progressing tell the tale. This year, rattlesnakes came out right on time in January, but spent less time overall active on the surface throughout February. Even now, their social activity at the dens seems sluggish and limited to only a short amount of time, compared to this time in previous years. Our rattlesnake removal hotline is deader than dead as rattlesnakes are just not liking something with this weather.
But … the weather this week looks like everything is about to change. Instead of focusing on how hot each day will get, I look at how cold it gets at night, and how much it changes … and how quickly. It looks like we’re about to start hitting temperatures in the 60’s each night, and do so consistently for several days. That is the signal I look for, and I would bet that after the little bit of moisture coming in later in the week, rattlesnakes are going to be making an appearance on social media pages all over the place. About time!
Immediately after a heavy rain, like the one that swept through the valley last night, we often receive an increased number of snake removal calls.
Rattlesnakes often use holes in dry washes and drainage systems to hide from the intense, dry heat of the early Summer. When the rain suddenly appears, those that have not yet left their hiding spots are sometimes caught in the rising waters and end up in odd places. Sometimes, the rain is just enough to make their chosen hiding spot undesirable, and they’re forced to move on. That means they sometimes head for the nearest available cover as the day heats up: alongside homes and buildings with suitable overhangs to protect from the sun.
Be extra aware if you live next to a wash, drainage area, or other places that are dramatically affected by the rain. If you live on the edge of the desert and have sections of your property that have flooded, especially areas with full cover like sheds and decorative rock features, you should also be cautious.
This is all normal, and temporary, and just one more thing to keep in mind as we all go out to pick up fallen palm fronds and survey any damage to our homes from the storm.
Does the rain mean that there are more rattlesnakes than normal?
Nope. Rattlesnakes don’t spontaneously appear from the dirt when touched by rain. While higher average rainfall can, over a period of years, lead to a higher survival rate of young rattlesnakes, and help keep the adults already here well-fed and alive, more rain doesn’t mean more snakes. It may bring cooler temperatures and more suitable conditions for snake activity … and human activity, so there may be an increase of encounters. The idea that a season of heavy rain means more large rattlesnakes will be out there is false.