The rumors are out there, and it’s true! Rattlesnake encounters spike in October, and it’s happening right now throughout much of the state. But, this is completely normal, happens every year, and it’s not really anything to worry about. Let’s take a look at the reasons, and why you shouldn’t be too concerned.
If you haven’t been outside yet this morning: it’s cold!
Rattlesnakes don’t have sweatpants and blankets, so they have work to do to avoid it. That means there’s a lot of activity in October, especially in the late afternoon and just after dark. They’re making movements to wherever they’re going to spend the winter … and it just so happens that this occurs right when people spend more time outside enjoying the cooler weather.
More people moving at the same time that more snakes are moving = more snake encounters. This is normal, and happens every year Add in a continued hockey-stick upward graph of population and development, and you have record encounter figures.And no, there is not, as I’ve seen a few post out there, a “bumper crop” of rattlesnakes.
They don’t spring forth from the Earth when water touches it. It would take several years of consecutively prime conditions to result in both higher birth rates and survivorship of young that could show a measurable increase in the rattlesnake population. Even then, their natural predators (every animal with a pulse in the desert) would put it right back where it should be.
The rumor mill is abuzz (see what I did there?)
I am fortunate that the local news allows me to comment on these kinds of rumors, and put it into perspective. Rumors like this can be problematic, and lead to dangerous situations for people and snakes. A person can have a totally normal experience, like seeing two rattlesnakes on a single bike ride, and then remember hearing from old Larry at the feed store that there’s a gull durn rattler invasion happening. That person might then take that typical experience of seeing multiple rattlesnakes and incorrectly use it to confirm Larry’s herpetological theories. Then come further posts, some causing people to do things like kill snakes to “help”, putting themselves in danger in the process.
Now that we know all of this, check out this video from KOLD in Tucson that explains.
More information on that snake fencing mentioned in the article:
In response, we’ve created a video that is our best response to the question. It’s long but comprehensive. It’s not just learning how to look at features, but addresses topics that cause confusion and cognitive bias that can really get in the way when seriously trying to learn to identify rattlesnakes. This video will walk you through the best way look at key features with a logical approach to differentiate between Mojave Rattlesnakes and Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
What can you do? “Count the scales on the head”, someone says … but how useful is that in real-life situations? “Tail bands look different”, another comment will read … compared to what? There are thousands of photographs of both species online, but telling the difference between a Mojave Rattlesnake and a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is still a point of confusion.
Build your skills to identify a Mojave Rattlesnake vs Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Is this photograph of a giant rattlesnake from Arizona real? That question has dominated my inbox for the last few days, so here’s the answer.
Yes, this photo is 100% real. There is no photoshop involved whatsoever.
However, the snake is not nearly as large as it’s made out to be. It appears to be a standard-sized adult Western Diamondback Rattlesnake for Arizona at around 3′ long.
This is yet another example of an illusion called forced perspective. In real life, your stereoscopic vision (two eyes) gives you depth perception, so you can clearly see that things that are closer to you aren’t actually larger. However, a camera just has one eye – the lens – so it isn’t always as apparent.
But why isn’t it obvious? It’s a no-brainer that closer things look larger on camera. It’s likely the subject matter. If someone held up an every day thing, like a water bottle, you’d not immediately share the photo with your Facebook friends about someone drinking from a 6′ tall bottle. The fact that the subject is a rattlesnake seems to short circuit that part of the brain, and you’re left staring at what seems to your eyes a very, very large rattlesnake.
Exactly why this same photo keeps popping up, though, reported from different cities, states, and even claims to be the photographer, are more interesting. For whatever reason, these photos are useful vehicles to get attention, and many people on social media eat it up. The first two locations I’ve seen were Peoria, AZ and Oro Valley, AZ … so the real location is probably one of those.
So it’s a rattlesnake alright, there’s nothing at all extraordinary about this situation.
If you live in Arizona, you’ve probably heard how dangerous toads can be to dogs. If your pup chews on the wrong one, it can lead to severe distress or even death.
But, how do you know which toad to watch out for? In the Phoenix area, the 5 most commonly seen toads are often confused for one another. And of course, that’s ok – you’re a dog owner, not a toad expert. So, here’s the easy guide to differentiate between the good guys and the dangerous ones. Then, a note on what you can do about it to keep everyone safe.
We’ll start with the harmless ones to help your logical brain form a proper, fear-free identification.
First, perhaps the most commonly-seen toad in the county, the Red Spotted Toad. They are everywhere, and not something to worry about.
Next up: the Woodhouse’s Toad. They can pop up anywhere the others can, but seem to be more commonly associated with neighborhoods that border agricultural areas. If your dog chews on one, it could emit a toxin that might make your dog drool and possibly throw up … but is not a danger. If anything, I might speculate that a bad experience with a gross-tasting toad might even help give your dog some context to avoid chewing on the next one it sees.
Very similar in appearance to the Woodhouse’s Toad is the Great Plains Toad. It’s a stout-looking toad with a more reticulate, blotched pattern than the Woodhouse, but also often has a light colored stripe down the back. They have always looked, to me, to be the grumpiest of all toads.
Not as commonly seen, especially outside of the monsoon season, are these bright green, cat-eyed toads: Couch’s Spadefoot. These cute little guys are not a danger.
Last but not least: the toad that you should absolutely not let your dog near. This is the Sonoran Desert Toad (or Colorado River Toad, as it is also referred to). These large toads, when under attack, will secrete a poison that can severely injure or kill a dog.
What do you do if you find a toad in your yard?
First, figure out what it is. If you’re not sure, you can send it to our team via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or text a picture to 4806943020.
2. If it’s a harmless one, just leave it there and go on to step #4.
3. If it’s a Sonoran Desert Toad (the poisonous kind). You can move it elsewhere, then just wash your hands. Or you can call someone to remove it.
4. However, you really need to investigate to figure out why it’s there to begin with, and change that situation if you can. Even if you find one of the harmless toads listed here, it can be an indication that there is moisture nearby that can also bring in the big, poisonous toads.
An article has been going around showing a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake sitting high in a tree, prompting many emails and messages asking about its validity.
This is normal behavior: rattlesnakes can and do climb trees, though it is not commonly observed. There is no reason to think that the series of photos was faked, staged, shopped, or anything but a totally natural observation.
How do we know that? We see rattlesnakes in trees sometimes. A variety of species in very different areas all find some need to occasionally wander up the bark of a tree. Over the years, I have personally seen Blacktailed Rattlesnakeds, Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Speckled Rattlesnakes, Tiger Rattlesnakes, and Banded Rock Rattlesnakes in branches over my head. Additionally, Timber Rattlesnakes and other east-coast species have been repeatedly seen high in the trees.
An example: here’s a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake I saw just last night. It was disturbed by my flashlight and fled into the bushes … where it suddenly started to climb. It went higher and higher, and was still up there when I passed through the area again hours later. This snake decided the best escape route was: up.
Here’s a Blacktailed Rattlesnake seen on a job site by Jeff Martineau, one of our field team, as it ascended a tree. Blacktails are known to climb like this, possibly to hunt birds and squirrels.
Here’s another Blacktail, which I saw from the edge of a road high in a tree, clearly not photoshopped 😉
Why do rattlesnakes climb trees?
There are probably a variety of reasons why a rattlesnake would climb a tree, but in most cases, I would assume that it’s to access prey. If you’re able to get off the ground, a lot of potential prey items, like birds and squirrels. They may also climb to escape predators, to stay cool, or to escape potential flood water during the monsoon season.
Are rattlesnakes going to drop out of the trees?
Almost certainly not. I suppose a snake could happen to make a mistake and fall out, and if you’re walking by right at that second you could possibly have a rattlesnake falling out of a tree onto you. But that’s an extremely remote, chance circumstance that isn’t worth worrying about.
You may have heard friends from the east claim that water moccasins routinely jump from trees into the canoe, too … but we’ll just gently say that they are completely full of it. Sure, it’s possible that someone scared a snake at the right time but and there are likely a handful of “lightning strike” type scenarios where this has possibly happened, but it’s not what they “do”. It’s like saying that the handful of dogs each year who accidentally disengage a parking brake and end up rolling the car down the street qualify the statement of “dogs drive cars”. Just think it through.
Does this mean they can climb the wall and get into my yard?
Not at all. Rattlesnakes can climb if there are sufficient rough surfaces to grip, which excludes your block wall or rattlesnake fence (if it’s installed properly) While they clearly can and do climb, they’re not nearly as good at it as a snake like a Gophersnake, Kingsnake, or Coachwhip, which are built for the task. If you’ve got a secured yard without “footholds” for lack of a better term, you should not expect rattlesnakes in the yard.
Here’s a video explaining how rattlesnakes climb … or don’t … smooth surfaces.
To close: a note to those on social media who like to shout answers on topics they don’t know much about: stop it 🙂 A simple google search in advance would have shown you how often rattlesnakes are actually found in trees, and that it’s totally normal. Here are some other videos of this behavior that I’ve found out there:
This question is one we hear often when we arrive at a homeowner’s residence to relocate a snake or perform an inspection. From the homeowner’s perspective, they’re likely a bit befuddled and nervous, because who wants a snake taking up residence where the kids play or where the dog likes to run around, right? Well, it’s a good question, and one I’ll answer as we explore a little bit about snakes, their behavior and where you’re likely to encounter them.
The quick answer: no, it’s not a rattlesnake hole. But that doesn’t mean a rattlesnake doesn’t live in it.
If you’ve lived in the Sonoran desert long enough, it’s likely you’ve seen many holes at the base of bushes, in the sides of wash walls, under rocks, etc. There is a lot of wildlife here, and many species have adapted to escaping the brutal temperatures of an Arizona summer day by getting out of the sun and down a hole. The hole is a refuge whereby the animal can keep hydrated (the humidity underground is appreciably higher than on the surface) and stay cool (the temperatures are appreciably cooler too).
In the greater Phoenix/Tucson areas, we don’t have snakes that dig their own holes In some areas of the country there are a few species that will (for example, in the eastern US female hognose snakes will excavate a hole to lay their eggs in). Here in Phoenix/Tucson, holes are dug by rodents, tortoises, lizards, etc. but not snakes. That said, snakes will sometimes use holes dug by other animals for refuge.
When you’re looking at a hole in your yard, how can you tell if a snake has been using it to get out of the sun/heat? Well, there are some indicators. First, rattlesnakes like to bask outside their refuges quite a bit. Depending on the substrate (ie sand, dirt, etc.) that the hole has been dug in, rattlesnakes will leave telling imprints in the substrate as evidence of their presence (similar to the footprint you leave while walking in sand). The imprint often looks like a “disk” of flattened dirt or sand, and in very clear cases you can even make out the belly scales of the snake that rested there outside the hole.
How can you tell if a rattlesnake is using the hole?
Snakes will also leave imprints as they enter/exit a hole. This looks like a flattened strip of sand/dirt that’s “raised” on the edges These edges are raised because as the snake crawls into/out of the hole, dirt and sand are pushed aside. Even in areas where the substrate isn’t conducive to leaving these particular kinds of imprints (ie gravel), it’s still possible to find evidence of snake activity. If there is grass or vegetation surrounding a hole, a snake will “flatten it out” as it rests outside the hole. Depending on the composition of the gravel, you may also see imprints as well.
Now, snakes aren’t the only animals that will leave evidence of their comings and goings into and out of holes. Lizards will often leave tail drags (they look like a line in the sand/dirt with little divots on the sides (the lizard’s hind feet)). Snake tracks are usually much wider and flatter than lizard tracks, and with a little practice it’s easy to tell them apart. Tortoises will leave very wide “slide” marks as they enter/exit, and these are easily differentiated from a snake track. Rodents will leave footprints too, but again, these look nothing like snake tracks.
How do you keep snakes from using these holes?
If you’ve seen rodent activity at a hole in your yard, it’s possible that at some point a snake may decide to use that hole as refuge. This is the best possible scenario for the snake, as it gets the cooler/more humid benefits out of the sun and may get a free meal to boot! If you see evidence of rodent activity in your yard (one big indicator is holes popping up where they didn’t exist before), your best bet is to contact a professional to address the rodent issue.
You can destroy the holes you see, but rodents also have a habit of making new ones when their old ones are destroyed. Once the rodent issue is addressed, that will also address the possible snake issue because at that point once the old holes are destroyed there won’t be any rodents to make new ones.
So s the hole you’re looking at a snake hole? If you’re in the Phoenix or Tucson areas, I can say that a snake didn’t make the hole you’re looking at.
Rattlesnake Solutions will professionally examine any holes, make a determination as to snake activity and also inspect your entire yard for further evidence of snake activity. They’ll discuss their findings with you and answer any questions you may have about snakes, holes, living in the desert, and more.
Ultimately, these holes, even though they aren’t caused by snakes, may be an indicator that your yard has things that snakes like. That means that if you’re in a contact zone with native desert, a visit from a rattlesnake or two is a strong possibility. This would be a good “shot across the bow” moment to take action to make your yard less attractive to rattlesnakes, and take care of things like having rattlesnake fencing installed.
A common request from homeowners and something I see people comment about quite often is the idea of capturing, buying, or importing kingsnakes and gophersnakes to release in the yard as a means to control rattlesnakes.
Kingsnakes, as you may be aware, are famous for making meals of venomous rattlesnakes. They completely harmless (even to kids and dogs) and even nice to look at. Because of their rattlesnake-eating preferences, many homeowners are more than happy to see a kingsnake cruising through the yard.
So why wait for nature to bring the kings to your yard? Can’t you just buy one at the pet store and let it go? How about someone in town who’s caught a wild one and does’t want it? Why not bring in a bunch of them to release and then never see a rattlesnake again? Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
It’s increasingly common to see requests like this on Facebook and Nextdoor, where communities of rattlesnake-averse homeowners compare snake experiences. “You don’t want that kingsnake? Bring it to my yard!”. There are also suggestions (and admissions) of buying kingsnakes from the petstore to release. Please, never do this.
Releasing kingsnakes into your yard is not a good idea and almost certainly will not help your rattlesnake issues.
Bubble burst: if your yard has sufficient food sources and resources to support a kingsnake, you already have one. The population and distribution of kingsnakes (and other snakes) is a complicated balance of predator and prey, intraspecies dynamics. It’s like pouring water onto a flat surface expecting it to pile up; the kingsnake you release will almost certainly just wander off, not to be seen again.
If you have rattlesnakes in the yard, you also have kingsnakes already hunting them. You may not see them very often, but moving around unseen is kind of a snakes’ thing. You could release as many kingsnakes into the yard as you want. If there isn’t sufficient food for them, they’re out!
Worse, unless you live in the same area as it’s used to so that it can resume its life, your new pest control idea will probably die out there.
Even worse than that, if you’re bringing kingsnakes in from other areas, you run the risk of spreading parasites and disease to the existing group of kings — your efforts to have more kingsnakes have a chance to make you have no kingsnakes.
What can you do to get more kingsnakes in the yard?
There is one way 🙂 but you’re not going to like it. Get more rattlesnakes! Really though, prey opportunities are the best way to attract any snake to the yard. Unfortunately, you can’t really do that without also attracting the snakes you don’t want around, too.
It seems the idea of introducing kingsnakes to your yard to keep rattlesnakes away just isn’t as helpful as it may seem. Just stick to the basics of keeping snakes out of the yard and if a kingsnake shows up to help, that’s great! But she doesn’t need any help.
This goes for Gophersnakes and Bullsnakes too. These snakes, by the way, don’t actually eat rattlesnakes like the saying goes … but that’s for another article.
A note to herpers in AZ as we enter July and begin the monsoon season. In particular: those looking for Speckled Rattlesnakes.
This is definitely not aimed at any one person one group, but a common trajectory that plays out again and again. If this is you, listen up. This isn’t criticism; this is to help you see more snakes in the future and progress at what you love to do. I’m also going to attempt to avoid the rant-format that these types of posts tend to take on.
This is when you might find groups of Speckled Rattlesnakes (or other species, sometimes together), in small groups on your hikes. That’s one of the most exciting feelings you can have. I remember very well the season where things finally started to feel like it all made sense and I could find specks at will any morning.
But something happened to those spots, and I want to talk about it so you can avoid making the same mistakes that I did, and many of us make early on. You don’t have to listen of course, but I guarantee that if you do, both you and the snakes you want to see will benefit.
The microhabitat that low-desert rattlesnakes choose for estivation and gestation sites is very specific. You can have a giant group of hillsides and ravines that all boil down to a handful of small holes where they gather to stay cool and safe throughout the hottest part of the year. These sites may be one of many they rotate between, but sometimes it appears to be just one, especially in areas where hikers and development have limited their options.
These summer sites are the hinge that their entire lives revolve on. They are every bit as sensitive and critically-important as Winter dens for snakes in cooler environments. They are easily impacted and can be destroyed by what may seem like nothing.
So if you are visiting for starting to find these groups as described, here’s how this is going to go:
This year you’re going to see so many specks – it’s going to be amazing, tons of photos, lots of learning, so many great experiences, etc. You’ll note the locations, and feel like everything is finally starting to come together into a greater understanding of it all.
You’ll invite some friends … close ones you trust of course … life is good.
You will return to check on these sites a few times a week, sometimes even the next day. You hook them out if they start to retreat and pose them up for some great close-ups – they crawl off just fine, what’s the harm? You come home and post those photos right away so the world can see.
Sometimes you can’t make it and your friends go without you. Sometimes they invite friends as well … close ones they trust of course.
But next year, you’ll come back to those sites and you’ll only see a handful of the snakes you saw before. Maybe it’s a bad year … the moon? Humidity too low? Who knows. You’ll keep visiting those sites hoping for a different result, but nothing changes. You spend most of your free herping time visiting old sites instead of exploring new ones. You still see great things, but not as great as last year! You do start to notice more footprints in that wash though, maybe a discarded gatorade bottle on the ground. Oh well, next year will be better.
The next year comes and now the weather and moon must really be bad, because there are no snakes at all at these spots. Where’d they go! There’s one snake deep in shed at one of them, but where are the others? There are now unrecognized footprints in the wash every time you go. You start recognizing rocks in photos from friends of friends of friends. You start seeing snakes you recognize on Instagram photos in hotel rooms. Herping starts to feel frustrating as you can’t decide on whether or not to explore for new spots or go check the old ones and hope something is happening. The next year, the site is dead. Occasionally a random snake is there, but it’s nothing of what it was a few years ago. The last time you went there, too, you ran into a couple of guys you don’t know from out of state who heard this was a good place.
So now the choice you’ll have: evaluate what happened, or carry on and repeat this process?
The dopamine response we all develop to seeing and sharing rattlesnake experiences is strong. It’s like ordering a pizza and as soon as it arrives, throwing it in the fridge and going to bed hungry. It can make truly evaluating our actions in the field and potential impact to critical habitat nearly impossible. It’s also the biggest enemy to having repeat encounters; to move past the point of herping being a series of random events, it’s also important to overcome.
Here’s what happens:
Small stress events, even ones that we don’t even notice … like getting a close up cellphone shot and the snake never tongue-flicks, build up. There are numerous studies of stress-response in several species of rattlesnakes (specks aren’t one of those, yet) if you want to look at it in depth. Those repeated stress events cause the behavior of the snakes to change. Sometimes it just means they’ll spend more time under bushes and out of view and they’re harder to detect, so you walk past more of them instead of the wide-open ambush positions you’re used to. But with these low-desert snakes, they tend to leave entirely. They may end up at a different estivation area. Sometimes that site isn’t as good as the one they originally selected, and sometimes that has negative consequences for the snake, up to and including death.
A single event, or managed stress events that are spaced out adequately avoid this effect. However, there are exceptions.
Rattlesnakes die at a surprisingly low temperature. Once the body gets into there 105-110 range, they are on death’s door. Even if they crawl away seemingly fine, they may not recover. On hot nights, specks will sit out until they are only a few degrees shy of their upper terminal temperature, then make a bee-line for cover. If you are buzzed during this process, then hold it up for a 20 minute photo session, then let it crawl away rattling to cover, you very well may have killed that snake and you will never know it. If the place they retreat to after the encounter is not suitable to survive a 110F+ inferno for the day: it’s dead.
Would you visit a horridus den and hook the snakes out the crevices to photograph? Would you pull them out in the coldst days of winter and pose them on open ice for a half hour shoot and let them crawl off into the snow? Would you flip every rock in a stream for hellbenders and pose them in the sun before releasing them into the sand? Would you dig an eastern massasauga out of a crawfish burrow for photos and leave it in the sun? Of course not – these are ridiculous actions that we know have consequences. For whatever reason, the nature of critical microhabitat for hot-desert species is largely missing from the herper lexicon.
It might be that the perceived abundance of rattlesnakes in Arizona makes it harder to see. It could be that, despite rattlesnakes in general being one of the most well-studied vertebrates on the planet, what they do when temps get to 110F is poorly documented. It could be that they are common animals in common places, so people simply don’t care if they are negatively affected. It could also be, and this is what I assume to be unfortunately true in many cases: the potential for damage is known, but the draw for the excitement of experience and sharing make it less important. I am sure we have all seen specks posed in the open on rocks where the shadow positions reveal the time by herpers who are experienced to know better. I can only guess why this feels acceptable.
Maybe it’s because they never see the results, other than the die-off of estivation sites each year. If that’s just chalked up to “must be a bad year”, as it tends to be, the lesson is never learned personally. Unfortunately, that mess is apparent to those who look for it.
A couple of us are working on a research project in a few areas that are often herped. There is nothing stated above that has not been well-documented, and eventually published. We set out to learn about where and when snakes use different microhabitat. As it progresses, however, the regretful picture of just how quickly well-intentioned herpers can kill off critical habitat is emerging. I hate it, but it’s right there and can’t be ignored. Once an area is discovered by herpers and visited frequently, it changes dramatically. Compared to similar sites that are either not herped or herped at spaced intervals to manage stress, repeated visits by groups of well-intentioned herpers is third in line of destruction of those sites to development and transient use.
Single or rare stress events, even if substantial, seem to not have any impact. Limiting visits to a sensitive site to just a handful a year can mitigate the negative issues I’ve described here. It’s an investment. You’re trading dopamine for future encounters.
This is what gives the Arizona herping community a bad reputation as people who go overboard on coming down on how and where people herp. There’s a reason for this: this is one of the herping hotspots of the world. Every person who seems over the top in their approach is coming from a position of watching sensitive sites be decimated each year. So while that message can certainly be handled better, try and see the underlying message.
All of this is why it seems you can’t so much as post a cell-phone shot of a snake here in Arizona without a bunch of old-timers coming out of the woodwork to tell you you’re doing it wrong. The fact is: they are right, but they need to put it in a better package. Let’s be honest about all this: we all know each other because we like reptiles, not because we’re all aligned on a social level.
So I’m asking you to try this: next time you see a speck in a wash, ask yourself:
Do you want to see this snake again? Is this more enjoyable as a one-off experience, or as an observation spot to visit for a lifetime?
Is my understanding and sharing of this experience better as a piled stress-ball, or as numerous future observations and hundreds of photographs of what this snake actually does?
Is approaching this snake up close for a cell-shot worth it. Is what I am doing hurting or helping?
Is it worth it to post that photo the moment I get home? Is the experience less enjoyable if I wait until after estivation season to do it?
If you don’t think that people can triangulate your position based on a telephone pole and a dirt road in the background, you’re wrong … and thanks for the site 😉
If you think that a snake wasn’t bothered by you because it didn’t tongue flick after that up close cellphone shot: come back in 10 minutes and see where it’s at.
If you don’t think that hundreds of people planning AZ monsoon trips, some much less well-intentioned or ethical as you are, aren’t watching every move you make and every photo you post: be aware that they are.
If you value the experience of visiting specks at the sites you’ve found: please consider all of this.
Or, disregard if you like. Just remember it in a few years when that speck honey-hole seems to have dried up. Guess what: it’s not the full moon.
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 Mojave Rattlesnakes tend to have wider white bands compared to Western Diamondback 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.
A bit of seasonal misinformation has been floating around, as it does each Spring – that rattlesnakes are more aggressive as they emerge from winter dens. Thankfully, this is not true. Rattlesnakes are not more aggressive after hibernation.
As the myth goes, rattlesnakes are hungry and grumpy, so will act more aggressively towards anyone that gets too close. What really happens is more complicated.
When conditions are right for rattlesnakes to start to emerge, usually in mid-February, they stay very close to the den for quite awhile. During this period, called egress, they may be hungry, but their activity is focused elsewhere. This is time for social activity – the complicated process of territory dominance, courtship, mating, and other inter-community interactions take place. They may eat during this time, but prime hunting season may not begin until weeks later, after they’ve left the den entirely to move to spring hunting grounds.
That means that between February and throughout March, rattlesnakes are more or less just hanging out near the entrance to their den. While they’re doing this, they are hiding under partial cover, and the males often go on scouting patrols to find females and defend against rivals. This means that encounters can still happen, and when they do, you may see more than one snake at a time. However, these situations are usually well off-trail and hidden, and the snakes will continue to do all they can to avoid confrontation with predators. Perhaps more than ever, they are easy to walk right by without ever knowing they are there.
I have no doubt at all that many people are surprised by rattlesnakes who reciprocate by enthusiastically rattling, even striking, but this is normal and would not indicate that rattlesnakes are more or less defensive during the springtime.
If this is true, why do people say that rattlesnakes are more aggressive after hibernation?
You can attribute this one to our old friend confirmation bias. If a person believes that rattlesnakes are more aggressive in the springtime, and then has an encounter where one rattles and becomes defensive, the take-away can easily be confirmation of the preconceived idea. What these people don’t see are the other rattlesnakes quietly hiding as they typically do. The experience a person can have may that all rattlesnakes rattle all the time, when this isn’t the case – they see 100% of the rattlesnakes they see.
This myth is most commonly passed around in April, which is generally after egress has ended in the low-desert, and many snakes have already eaten. That means that most people who claim to have first-hand experiences with these hyper-aggressive snakes may not have ever actually experienced a rattlesnake in a true denning situation.
How do you know this?
First, there’s no evidence to suggest that rattlesnakes are more aggressive at any particular time of year. There are stories and anecdotes from hikers and ranchers who encounter rattlesnakes from time to time (see the explanation above), but without further study and comparison, these stories are hardly evidence.
To the contrary, rattlesnake denning behavior is one of the most well-studied subjects of all reptiles. In our own team and experience, many of us spend a large amount of time each year at dens watching and observing what the snakes do. It is quite easy to move through these areas without disturbing the snakes at all. If a snake is disturbed, it may just give a few quick clicks of the rattle before going on its way – busy with its primary task of finding other snakes, or traveling a short distance to the bush it likes to sit under.
So ignore stories from social media and local news outlets that claim this is the case. In fact, throw the entire idea that rattlesnakes are aggressive at all out the window. They are incredibly complex animals with highly-detailed social lives, and busting out of a den to chase after people just isn’t reality.