Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Snake Weather - Part 1

Please note: my niece who is visiting me in California this July is not allowed to read this blog post. She says she will not visit the Dipper Ranch because she "doesn't do mice and snakes", but I can meet her in San Francisco. This young lady grew up on a farm - what's the deal? I guess I could also forbid my mom and youngest sister and some of my botanical colleagues from reading this post because they too are freaked out about my snake stories.

Dear friends & family - please reconsider. Snakes are very interesting. Did you know that snakes have two lungs like us, but usually, in order to fit inside their unique body shape, the right lung is long while the left lung is shrunk to nothing kinda like our appendix? In any event, before you proceed further, I must warn you that this blog posting includes moments of venomous snakes, rattles, screaming and the death of a baby bunny. Kinda like those TV nature shows.

Snake weather is any pleasantly warm day when it's been cold, any moderately warm day when it's been hot, and any warm night. We had daytime temperatures in the 80s and 90s for several days in coastal California. Quite unusual for April when we usually have either bright warm days or cool fog drifting among the spring-green hills. Last year, it wasn't until May that we had several consecutive hot days and that's when the snakes suddenly showed up. I proclaimed May 12 through 18, 2008 as "Snake Week" because I saw an average of 1 snake per day around the farmyard. I could have also called it "Brown Snake Week" because they were either gopher snakes or rattlesnakes, or "The Barn is a Snake Pit Week", but that was in the early days when I didn't have enough experience to classify the week by subcategories.

In early April this year, my cuddly ranch cat, Cole, brought me baby bunnies. The first one was alive and I released it from his clutches; the second one was dead. Cole and I had a talk. I explained he is allowed to hunt all forms of rodents in the farmyard, especially those that come into the house, as part of the Dipper Ranch snake protection program. That is, by reducing the rodent population, he would be removing the attraction of the house and farmyard to predators and thus protecting us from snakes. I also explained that rabbits are lagomorphs (gnawing, herbivorous mammals including rabbits, hares, and pikas), not rodents, and thus they are not included in his hunting license. I showed him the bell that would otherwise go on his collar. Cole nodded wisely and went back to monitoring the gopher holes.

One week later when I was chopping up enemy #1 - thistles, I noticed Cole happily purring by the kitchen door. When I reached down to ruffle his cheerful fur, I realized there was another baby bunny laying on the ground at his feet. Furious, I dragged the 15-lb feline indoors. After a brief struggle, he was subsequently decorated with a bell on his collar. A jingly Cole followed me outside to the scene of the crime. We were both astonished to discover that the bunny was gone. Apparently, the rabbit was playing dead and escaped during our brief indoor em-bell-ishment.

I was searching the nearby bushes when I noticed Cole zip straight to the barn and slip under a large sliding door. The barn has been vacant for many years, so I had to unchain the door and push against its rusty tracks to get inside. I found Cole crouching under an old wagon. By the looks of the straw tunnels on the floor, I could tell where the rabbits were nesting. While I ran around the wagon unsuccessfully trying to snag Cole, he trotted over to the far corner of the barn. Suddenly, we both heard a "ssss-sssssss-sssss", the distinct rattlesnake rattle. Cole jumped back. I threw him out of the barn and then crept over to see if I could spot the rattlesnake. At some point in the past, someone covered the dirt floor of the barn with loose plywood boards which over the years got covered with straw, manure and miscellaneous discarded farm implements. Lots of places to hide. Kinda creepy. Although I could still hear the rattling, I could not see the rattler and I wasn't willing to investigate any closer. I closed up the barn and put boards in front of the larger cracks under the door so that Cole could not get back inside.

Last year, I learned to make early morning rounds of the farmyard on a daily basis. Most evenings before dark, I repeated the rounds, and on weekends, I checked more frequently. This gave me a chance to watch the weather, monitor the thistles warfare, and detect wildlife patterns. I became familiar with the locations where snakes most frequently sunbathed on warm days: the southwest corner of the barn by the back door in the midmorning, and the east side of the barn by the hose in the late afternoon. When the sunning snakes happened to be rattlesnakes, usually small buggers, I captured and moved them far away from the farmyard. I figure it is better to monitor, catch and move a rattlesnake than ignore it and later be unpleasantly surprised.

A few days later, I noticed the sun shining on the back of the barn and figured it was good sun-bathing weather.

First, I saw this:
Then I saw this:
With about six inches of its body laying outside the barn , I could tell this was a northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis oreganus) by the triangular shape of its head and the vertical slit of its pupils. I couldn't tell its overall length or see the rattles, but the span of the head and girth of the body looked larger than most rattlesnakes that I had seen around the barn. It was draped behind a pipe with its body arranged between sun and shade to soak up heat without overexposing itself. I guessed this was cautious behavior of a snake recently coming out of hibernation. I slipped over to the garage to grab my gloves, net, snake tongs and courage. My technique is to slowly place the net in front of the snake - they usually don't move - and then with the tongs snag the snake midbody and toss it into the net. With the pipe in the way, I didn't get a good grip on this rattler on the first try. With much indignant rattling, the snake slipped back into the barn.

I ran around to the other side of the barn, slid open the heavy door and peeked in. It was still rattling furiously and its head and 8 inches of its body were sticking out of a lumber pile at a stiff 45 degree angle. It was watching me watching it. As I approached the lumber pile, it retreated between the boards. I tried to wedge the snake tongs into the gaps between the boards but was unable to get any purchase as I saw coil after coil slip back into the pile. Once again, I closed up the barn and warned the cat to stay away.

Then the April mini-heatwave arrived. On a warm Saturday, I noticed the backside of the barn was bathed in sunlight and I cautiously checked the southwest corner. This time I found the rattler with its entire body just outside the back barn door. I went through my gotta-catch-a-rattler routine: put the curious kids and pets inside, put on heavy leather gloves and boots, gather net and tongs, and take a deep breath.

I successfully captured the rattler although it was tricky for a few seconds because I had to maneuver its body around the pipe to drop it into the net. It was mad and rattling fast and faster. With the snake safely restrained in the deep net, I took a few moments to scream off the tension in the backyard - nice thing about the country, you don't have to worry about nearby neighbors wondering what the heck you are doing.

To get a photo without getting too close, I propped the net over a garbage can and climbed a ladder to shoot from above. The snake was too frisky to relocate on that day, so I dropped it into a pillowcase, tied off the top, and stored it in a locking-top trashcan in a cool part of the garage. Snakes eat infrequently and rarely drink water, so they keep well in a dark, cool place for several days. Just make sure you let your housemates know the plan.

The release of the rattler - coming soon as Snake Weather - Part 2.


  1. What an adventure and I wouldn't go near it unless I was in a suit of armor....But you gotta love a girl who has snake tongs.....Can't wait for part 2..

  2. I have read you can only move your rattlesnakes about a football field length away or they get confused and die a slow death. I investigated this on the web due to the many rattlers on our property. When I see al rattler I tell him...."OK....I am going to leave and when I come back in 5 minutes I want you gone" Usually they listen.....if not I go through the process again until they catch on. Now you can see why I don't get anything done around here!! Jen H.

  3. So Jen, just how long have you been talking to rattlesnakes? It makes sense that animals with no limbs that live on the ground and know it intimately for prey, shelter and thermoregulation (=sun), would struggle when moved to an unfamiliar location. I try to find a location with similar conditions, but there is probably an adjustment period when they are susceptible to predation. So I move rattlers only from those locations where conflict is likely (farmyard where there are frequently uninitiated people and pets), and just step away from them on the other 899 acres of the ranch.


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