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.
This is a relatively new myth that’s something to watch, where those of us who regularly work to dispel rattlesnake mythology see spread and grow across the country. It goes something like this:
“Rattlesnakes are losing their rattles [or ability/will to rattle] because the noisy ones are killed by [hogs/hunters/whatever], so the silent ones live and have a bunch of silent babies.”
So ya, if you squint you eyes just right, you can see that this seems at least plausible (and big props to the United States for incorporating the idea of natural selection into pop-mythology). However, there’s a big problem here: there is no evidence whatsoever that says this is happening.
Ya but I see rattlesnakes when I’m hiking and they don’t rattle, so …
Unpopular truth time: people aren’t as good at seeing rattlesnakes as they may think they are. Even super-experienced outdoorsy types who see relatively high numbers of rattlesnakes each year are seeing a small fraction of those they walk right by.
Rattlesnakes don’t often rattle in the wild, even when there’s someone looking at them. This is a great example of confirmation bias. If you hear that rattlesnakes aren’t rattling any longer, and you then see a rattlesnake just sitting there and not rattling, this can serve as confirmation that the rumors are true. You then tell others this is the case, having first-hand experience on the matter, comment on Facebook, etc. Just like that, you’ve become the latest node in the spread of nonsense without realizing it.
This can be even more confusing for long-term hikers with a lot of experience, who report seeing a this phenomenon over time (decades even), where rattlesnakes used to rattle but now most of the rattlesnakes they see don’t: therefore the myth is true. What these anecdotes really look like is something much more simple to explain. Over the years, these people have simply become better at seeing rattlesnakes, and peaceful sightings of rattlesnakes just sitting silent, as they usually do, become more frequent.
Rattlesnakes near busy areas probably do rattle less, but it’s not meaningful; a more plausible explanation.
We see the evidence of this clearly in the yards of snowbirds (seasonal Arizona residents) who own homes in the desert areas and leave them unoccupied for half a year or more. When they return, we’re often called about a sudden rattlesnake infestation! Upon investigation, we find that the snakes have always been there, but just learned to avoid the homeowners. Even something as simple as a car coming and going from the driveway each day seems to have a suppressive effect on visible rattlesnake activity at a home. This is most noticeable in areas where long-term development, i.e. older homes and older urban parks, have stabilized and rattlesnakes and people are somewhat used to one another at this point.
On trails, as part of our study of urban rattlesnakes living in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, we’ve learned that rattlesnakes quite often live and hunt right next to trails. Why aren’t these rattlesnakes rattling? Because they have no reason to. These parks get thousands of visitors every weekend: they are simply used to it. If someone lingers or surprises the snake, it will rattle. The rattlesnakes here are most often seen silently slipping away into the rocks and bushes, as they tend to do anywhere.
Ya but there are rattlesnakes that have evolved to lose their rattles entirely! What about those?
There are several rattlesnake species that have indeed lost their rattles entirely, or are in the evolutionary process of doing so. However, this fact isn’t at all relevant to the this topic. Here’s why:
These rattlesnakes, most famously the Santa Catalina Rattlesnake, live on uninhabited islands off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. They lose their rattles, most likely, because they simply don’t need them, or possibly to help them hunt birds more effectively. The interesting thing to note here is that the way they are losing them is not that they tend to not rattle, but that the physical structure of the rattle itself is changing. Rattlesnakes in these areas, where the large hoofed mammals that prompted the evolutionary origin of the rattle to begin with, still shake the tail and try and rattle. However, with no segments being retained due to a slight change in shape, nothing happens.
Regardless, the fact that there are some rattlesnakes without rattles at all has nothing to do with this new myth. It does often come up in conversations about it though, so worth mentioning here.
Rattlesnakes rattle when they need to, but seeing a silent rattlesnake is totally normal.
There was an article posted on NPR several years ago that’s particularly annoying, because it serves as verification to many that this is happening. Local news stations, networks like the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, and many other sources seen as authoritative, have no trouble at all reporting that this is true.
There is no evidence of it happening, and as fun as it might be to have something interesting to add to the conversation, evidence is required to declare that something is happening. If someone reads the NPR article (which I will not link here, hoping it will die a slow death and go to bad-reporting hell), the massive claims about broad changes in evolutionary trajectory of rattlesnakes have not been tested, documented, or even written down as far as anyone knows.
So if you’re one of the well-intentioned, well-informed people that tends to drop the “well ACTUALLY” note about silent rattlesnakes when the opportunity comes up, it’s time to stop. You’ve become a unknowing victim of American culture’s love of rattlesnake misinformation.
Schuett, Gordon & N Taylor, Emily & A Van Kirk, Edward & J. Murdoch, Wialliam. (2004). Handling Stress and Plasma Corticosterone Levels in Captive Male Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox). Herpetological Review. 35. 229-233.
Aaron J. Place, Charles I. Abramson “Habituation of the Rattle Response in Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox,” 2008(4) Copeia (18 December 2008)
Pitts, Hughes, Mali. Rattlesnake Nuisance Removals and Urban Expansion in Phoenix, Arizona September 2017Western North American Naturalist 73(3):309-3016
Ávila-Villegas, Martins, Arnaud. Feeding Ecology of the Endemic Rattleless Rattlesnake, Crotalus catalinensis, of Santa Catalina Island, Gulf of California, Mexico February 2007Copeia 2007(1):80-84
If you’re scared of rattlesnakes, you probably have much more control over that fear than you realize. Before reading this article, ask yourself a question and be completely honest (why wouldn’t you?). Why are you scared of rattlesnakes? When did it start? What specific event or fact? Got it? Good, even if the answer is “I don’t know”, you’re ready to challenge a life-long cause of anxiety.
Here we go …
As temperatures stabilize into warm days and relatively warm evenings for consecutive days, mean that rattlesnakes are going to become quite active over the next few weeks. I thought it would be good to get out ahead of it and have some discussion out of the way to avoid a lot of the daily alarm that occurs each year.
Obviously this shouldn’t be a surprise to any Arizona resident, hopefully by now anyway. It’s not a cause for concern, or to stop hiking or riding. It’s not time to stop enjoying your backyard, or visiting our amazing parks. It is, however, time to remember basic snake safety.
If the whole topic of rattlesnakes is scary for you (this includes you, mr cant-hike-without-snakeshot) taking some time to learn about the local snakes and what they really do and don’t do, can and can’t do, and how your activity fits into the mix works absolute wonders.
Rattlesnake safety is a topic we’ve covered rattlesnake safety quite well at this point, so no need to rehash again. Rather, I’d like to get to the heart of the issue: fear. Specifically, fear that we experience as a culture due to the general lack of information and low level of qualified experience most of us have. Yes, I realize that you may have grown up in Arizona (or Texas, as Texans like to open most statements with), and seen your share of rattlesnakes, but that doesn’t mean you know much about them.
“I grew up in Arizona and know all I need about rattlesnakes”
But how? The same way that I drive a car every day of my life but can barely change the oil by myself without having to have the entire oil pan replaced (ya, that happened). Experience without context, especially when only having a relatively thin slice of experience, gives an incomplete picture of what’s really happening. If you are a mechanic, a little change in the performance of your vehicle or a mystery sound is a very different experience than it is to car-dummies like myself.
So imagine if I used my experience driving a car to inform others about how to solve car troubles. It might look something like “just hit it with a hammer”, which is the equivalent to the inevitable “shotgun” comments that show up on any image of a rattlesnake. I have decades of experience spending a lot of time in cars, but I’m still oblivious to much of the interior.
With rattlesnakes, most people, even the most outdoorsy types, tend to have an experience where the rattlesnake sees them first, and alerts you to its presence by rattling. If this is what most of your rattlesnake experiences look like, the perception that rattlesnakes are overly-touchy, aggressive animals. If those same people had a broader experience, perhaps with rattlesnakes being social, hunting, moving around, and the other >99.99% of their lives where they’re not rattling and being defensive, that picture looks very different. Most importantly, the expectation is different, and then so is the perception of an encounter, as is the memory, and ultimately the very feeling of it.
The best way to be mentally cool when a rattlesnake shows up: learn about them.
Can you tell the difference between a Nightsnake and a Diamondback? Do you know what a Longnosed Snake is? How many rattlesnake species live in your neighborhood? How far can a rattlesnake strike, and will they chase you? If you don’t know, spend a lunch break online with our friend Google and equip yourself for the upcoming year, or ask someone qualified to give an accurate answer (ahem).
As with many things, fear of snakes is often just because we don’t know much about them. In the place of reality are all of the behaviors and possibilities that the mind tends to fill in, regardless of how unlikely or impossible they actually are. It may not be an ideal activity for the snake-phobic, but spend some time learning about the snakes in your area.
If you see a snake in your garage in the middle of the night, knowing the difference between a Nightsnake and a rattlesnake could mean the difference between going back to sleep or not. Though possibly uncomfortable, educating yourself is the single best way to lower your fear and help make life in the desert as easy as it actually is.
For many of us, fear is a choice.
The more you learn, the less space snakes will occupy in your mind. Keep in mind that someone can grow up here and see many rattlesnakes and still not know a thing about them, and just because something has been for a long time doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.
The good news is that much of the danger is very overblown, especially when some simple preventative measures and appropriate reactions are the go-to, over the sensational and useless that often dominate in disguise as common sense. Rattlesnakes do pose a certain danger which can be overcome, for both people and pets, with preparation, knowledge, and thinking it through beyond just doing things the same way as they’ve always been done.
The amount that we know about rattlesnake behavior has grown tremendously in the last 20 years. I challenge anyone exceptionally concerned with rattlesnakes to honestly self-evaluate the fear, its origin, and go-to solutions. Are they truly useful, or just part of identity, culture, and tradition? If you had a scary experience with a rattlesnake, how much of that is because of how you expected to react, not what the animal actually did? People are very often surprised when they possess the ability to be introspective. Many are not, and will defend misinformation at any cost, but if you’ve read this far, I don’t think you’re one of those types, and are quite capable of challenging your world view.
Remember that no matter how you feel about rattlesnakes, what actually happens isn’t influenced by it. If you’re someone that claims each year, as soon as a rattlesnake shows up on your Facebook feed, to stop hiking: stop. Make this the year you stop being afraid of snakes.
Here are some resources that can help you be prepared, mentally and otherwise, for the inevitable.
First, here is a website I put together specifically for the area around north Phoenix, but works pretty well anywhere in Maricopa county. It includes photos and identification material for the snakes found here. You can also send in photos for identification:
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.