I just received a message from a good friend in the Syracuse area. Although we have not talked in quite a while, he is a faithful reader of this column and, for the first time ever, Fred had a request. He asked if I would do a column on rattlesnakes. I will, of course, accommodate but he picked a particularly horrible time.

I am currently under quite a threat with regard to all things snaky.

There are current issues revolving around a rubber snake curled up inside a candy container with a string running from its head to the container lid. Opening the container therefore drew the snake out to full length quite rapidly. This generated a very credible death threat should I be involved with anything with regard to reptiles in the foreseeable future. Then there is the prominent wildlife professional who I have had to avoid for years regarding my insensitivity to her getting snake bit.

I really could not be blamed for that. When the state decided timber rattlesnakes should be protected, they felt it also necessary to train all the law enforcement staff and forest rangers on how to handle these sensitive reptiles.

This was silly since we had been doing it for years. I carried an old beat-up putter in my car trunk. It worked just as well as a snake hook for picking them up and only cost 50 cents at a yard sale. Nevertheless, we found ourselves in a downstairs training room under the tutelage of a young blonde female wildlife biologist. This description will be important in a minute. I will, for the sake of convenience, call her Patty.

My officers always had to sit in the front row. This was mandated at one point because we could not be trusted and I continued the practice as a badge of honor. The rest of the room was filled mostly with Forest Rangers who stayed more toward the back.

After a lecture on why rattlesnakes should be protected, Patty used the snake hook she had been lecturing about to remove a very pretty female timber rattlesnake from one of the buckets she had up front. As she held it out, she asked if we knew why it simply crawled over the hook until it balanced and did not continue to crawl off the hook onto the ground.

I knew the answer was that they do not have great depth perception at any distance, but I could not keep my mouth from saying, “Because it is a blonde female?”

This clearly did not set well, but Patty was professional and went on with her explanation. Later she was handing equipment around for us to examine. I was interested in the snake tongs because I could never afford a set and was trying to figure out if I could liberate these.

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All of a sudden, Patty tipped over the bucket, sending the blonde snake skittering toward the audience and asked if anyone had moxie enough to catch it. Those were not her exact words, but you get the picture.

My guys did not move, although a couple did raise their feet. However, someone in the back of the room had a phobia. When he screamed and broke for the door, everyone there stampeded. The spectacle of 25 large men trying to get through a 36-inch door simultaneously was wonderful and the pile of equipment that got peeled off in the process was equally so. I caught the snake easily and she caught me easily when I tried to slip the tongs behind the door as I helped her carry things out after class.

A bit later, doing a class in another region, the same snake bit right through the carry bag into her leg. It was a nasty envenomed bite that put her out of commission for quite a while. When it was finally determined that she would recover well, I sent her a get-well card containing a nice poem including all the rules she had given us for what not to do when handling snakes, as well as a ticket for harassing protected wildlife.

Apparently it was too soon for she issued a series of death threats that seemed completely credible. I have avoided her ever since.

The cause of all this hubris is Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. They are a medium-to-large snake; some females have achieved 6 feet in length but the average is closer to 2 1/2 or 3. A quick identification key, to separate the real McCoy from the many harmless snakes that mimic them, is that the head is triangular and much wider than the neck. The typical color is yellowish brown with a nice camouflage pattern of darker blotches and stripes zigzagging around the body.

We are lucky to have a viable population. Recent research has shown they are limited in population growth by the availability of suitable sites to hibernate. These must be deep enough — at least 5 feet — to get below the frost line, cannot flood, and must allow sufficient air flow to avoid suffocation under the snow. They leave the hibernaculum in late May and spread out to their summer hunting territories.

The gestation period is roughly five months after which the female gives birth to from four to 14 babies, each about a foot long. She provides no maternal care, but the young stay near her until fall when they follow her scent trail to the hibernaculum for the first time, which imprints its location in their memory. Stocking experiments have always failed because this key step cannot be duplicated with a captive-bred population.

Recent research has determined the most important factor causing the recent decline in rattlesnake populations. Routine killing used to take large numbers, especially when there was bounty on them (New York state finally eliminated this in 1971), but the key feature is roadways in the area. Snakes are seldom killed on dirt roads, but the installation of a highway almost always results in a huge increase in roadkill, especially later in the summer when the residual warmth of the blacktop is a huge attractor to a cold-blooded reptile, especially one with pit organs that sense warmth.

There you go, Fred. I do not think I can be attacked for simply writing about snakes and I have no reason to go to Albany, so I will probably get through this just fine. Probably being the operative word...

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Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The PostStar.


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