It's rattlesnake season again! Most people fear those words, but a few actually relish this time of year. Are they crazy? Well, not exactly. Some folks have a job that involves tracking and catching snakes for research or preservation.
Take, for example, Ann Stengel in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Ms Stengel is a UMass Amherst doctoral candidate out to save the timber rattlesnake in New England. It turns out that the rattlesnake populations are endangered in that region. The largest population left in Massachusetts—and possibly in New England—is found in Berkshire County. Human incursion into habitat and malicious killing of the snakes have greatly disturbed their numbers. And given that female snakes only reproduce once every three to five years and 80 percent of offspring can be expected to die in the first year, the snakes are slow to rebuild depleted populations.
In the name of science, people like Stengel take newborn snakes into captivity for a year or a year and a half, then release them near their den site with the hope that they adapt back into the wild. Some do and some don't. The more successful this project becomes, the more people who find rattlers fearsome will object to it. In response, Ms. Stengle points out that snakes are good for rodent control, and that to date no one in Massachusetts has ever died of a rattlesnake bite. In fact, bites are extremely rare as timber rattlesnakes, the species found in the Berkshires, are not very aggressive.
A bride-to-be in El Dorado County, California wishes the rattlers in her area were not aggressive. Instead of marching down the aisle to say "I Do" Macee Whitton found herself in the hospital on her wedding day. A week before her Big Day, she was outside with her dogs and a rattlesnake bit her on the ankle. Despite getting bags of anti-venom at a nearby medical center, the poison kept traveling through her body. She had a lengthy hospital stay and it took weeks to recover. Her wedding has been rescheduled.
According to the California Poison Control Center, most bites occur between April and October when snakes and humans are most active outdoors. The vipers usually den from late October to early April. Their body temperature will get down to 40 degrees. They lose very little body weight because they shut down metabolically. A female rattler is pregnant for more than a year before giving birth to eight to 12 live little snakes. You might think the mother rattler then slithers off and leaves the little ones to fend for themselves, but researcher shows that the mother remains with her young until she leads them to the family den at the end of fall. There, the little ones, their mother and 30 to 50 other snakes will disappear deep into the ground below the frost level to sleep away the winter.
Once the snakes emerge from hibernation at this time of year, they have a kind of social life. They often use the same basking areas, and are particularly fond of south-facing rocky slopes. During the warm months snakes will travel— males up to four miles and non-pregnant females about two miles. But they always return to the same den. An adult rattler can live for 45 years if it avoids predators such as humans and red-tailed hawks.
The best thing you can do when in rattlesnake country is not to avoid the great outdoors, but to be prepared by wearing snake gaiters or snake proof boots. And don't ever let your guard down. Keep an eye out, be careful of where you sit, and don't reach into blind areas under rocks or wood piles where rattlesnake hang out.