story and photos by Laurie Dirkx
How I became intrigued by timber rattlesnakes is a bit of a tale. It is one brought about by a slightly macabre interest yet equally out of responsibility to want to know our regional wildlife better. It began with a startled hiker talking about something he just saw at a state park trailhead I was just entering into to hike. Some of me felt fear, but more, I found I was upset for not already being more educated on them. That is what began my journey of study first, then observation second.
I’d made a point to contact a friend who had conducted venomous snake den studies through his wildlife biology curriculum at college. I wanted to learn how he had stayed safe, and for any advice that could be given. It was calming to hear in his relaxed and confident words that the timber rattlesnake – Crotalus horridus – is anything but horrid as their scientific name spells out.
Generalities of safety go as follows: to wear loose pants with tall boots, freeze if you hear rattling to locate the snake, stay calm and let the snake take its exit. If you have to move, do so slowly and (obviously) away from the snake. Also, stay out of thick brush where they could be in protective hiding.
I had learned timber rattlesnakes are apt to be found on southern-exposure hillsides that are strewn with rock outcroppings – the same type of terrain I’d been hiking for decades, yet not once did a thought of venomous snakes come to mind.
Timber rattlesnakes can readily determine we aren’t prey and therefore encounters are rare. Due to the vibrations from our talking and for the heavier footsteps we take that differ from their much smaller prey, they simply know not to pursue humans. This is reassuring!
My first sighting was while picking wintergreen berries when motion caught my peripheral vision. She was a yellow-morph timber rattlesnake. I witnessed her basking-outstretched body coil up and snug into her spaghetti pile of newly-birthed, gray neonates (pencil-sized baby timber rattlesnakes).
What had been their time warming in the sun, instantly became self-preservation. They were about 12 feet away, near the crevice opening to their layered-rock den site. As soon as the vibrations from my picking berries was felt, they instinctually knew to retreat, to coil up and make themselves small and hidden in their habitat.
Timber rattlesnakes are born with a “pre-button” at the tail end of their bodies, it is from this that a rattle grows following a shedding of their skin. Though they’re not born with a formed rattle, this does not mean they’re without venom. Newborn timbers are equally capable of envenomating (delivering venom through a bite) as mature timbers are, and like many wild species – venomous or not – retreating is their safe option. Timber rattlesnakes are actually quite docile but will act in defense when provoked. Depending on the level of disturbance, timbers choose whether they envenomate, partially envenomate, or not envenomate at all (a dry bite). Some merely just “smack” you without fangs if you get too near.
When snakes shed, their eyes become opaque, diminishing their sight to surroundings. I’d once happened upon a large male who was just about to shed. He was completely motionless and amazingly camouflaged in his environment. His safety was to remain still, to be undetected in his rather disadvantaged state of shedding. It was not until I continued hiking past, that he finally made a motion to retreat to his den.
The most challenging encounter I’ve had was hearing that distinctive buzzing, the rattle of their tail, the sound most people only hear in western movies. I looked over and there she was, about seven feet away. She was so close I could barely fit her in my camera frame. I say “her” because I could see elongated bulging throughout her body, suggestive of a gravid (pregnant) female. She started coming toward me – though I knew it wasn’t really “me” she endeavored to reach. But still, the thought of bolting out of there came to mind – even though I knew if there was one timber there could be more. That was not the time to make haste, which could lead to error, like a fall, or worse. Instead, I stood still…with my heart racing. As she got within 3 feet of me, I’d finally realized why. I was standing above her den, which she gently disappeared into. Exhale! That solidified just how docile they are, if you too, have your head about you.
If you’ve hiked over the top of a downed log, you could very well have stepped over a timber rattlesnake. Timbers hunt alongside the edges of logs, waiting for prey to pass by. Because the sound of small prey scurrying through leaf litter on a forest floor has them prone to predation by hawks, fox and other predators, they become silent when they run along the surface of a log where they’re not as easily heard by those predators. This is how the ambush hunting of a pit viper benefits. The timber lays in wait beside these logs, and detects the heat of passing prey through their pit organs located below their eyes. It is such a passive way of hunting; to have your meal come to you for the taking.
Timber rattlesnakes are protected and because of this I don’t give away den locations. I’m compassionate to their plight of fearful humans who harm them and it’s my hope to inspire others to protect them.
In as much as I do not suggest for people to seek out venomous pit vipers, I will say, there are few creatures in our region that command such respect as the timber rattlesnake. I am filled with exhilaration and gratitude to have had a glimpse into their secretive world.
Though it is unlikely to encounter timbers in the wild, many of us do hike in their territories. The best advice I can give is to already have an understanding of this amazing species. Researching photos of them in their natural habitat will help to spot them when out in their environment. And, in regard to the rattle of a timber rattlesnake, listen to this in your studies as well. Then, you too can hear this courtesy they so graciously give, all in order for us to stay safe.