The purpose of marking the rattles is to determine if any of the relocated rattlesnakes are returning to the Dipper Ranch barn. The good news is that so far, none of the seven rattlesnakes I have cautiously marked and relocated from 1 to 2 miles away from the barn have returned. The bad news is that new rattlesnakes show up at the barn every year.
Later in the day while I was mowing, I saw a brown-blotched snake moving in the grass. I immediately turned off the brushcutter and stood back to observe. After confirming with absolute certainty that the snake was a harmless gopher snake, I picked it up and carried it well out of my mowing area. It had a big bulge midway down its body. I hoped it was eating the pesky gophers whose mounds make it impossible to mow with a regular lawnmower.
Seeing both snakes on the same day reminded me of the key traits I use to distinguish the potentially dangerous rattlesnake from the non-venomous gopher snake.
A rattlesnake usually has rattles at the end of its tail, but the tail is not always visible. A recently born rattlesnake will only have a button on its tail tip which does not rattle until the snake gets a second segment upon its first shedding.
A gopher snakes has a thin, pointed tail tip. When alarmed, a gopher snake may rapidly shake its tail tip that gives the impression of a rattlesnake, especially if the tail is vibrating against leaves or the ground in a way that makes a buzzing sound. A gopher snake may hiss when disturbed which also may sound like rattling.
A rattlesnake has a triangular-shaped head with the base of the head much wider than the neck.
A gopher snake has a narrower head which blends in more gradually with its neck. When alarmed, a gopher snake may flatten its head which makes it look somewhat triangular.
Rattlesnake eyes have pupils which are vertical slits. On the top of its head, a rattlesnake has many, small scales between its eyes. As a pit viper, a rattlesnake has heat sensing pits between its eyes and nostrils which its uses to locate warm-blooded prey.
A gopher snake has pupils which are round or oval. A gopher snake has a few, large scales between its eyes and does not have heat-sensing pits on its face.
Do not depend too much on body color. The same species of snake can vary greatly in color depending on age and regional differences. In general, I notice that a rattlesnake is often dusty looking whereas a gopher snake has a shiny coloration.
Are you ready to test yourself? Soon I'll post more photos for you to guess whether each is a rattler or gopher snake. [Quiz now posted at Brown vs. Brown]
WARNING: Moving a rattlesnake is risky - do not attempt to relocate or otherwise handle a rattlesnake unless you know what you are doing. I've discussed why I move rattlesnakes rather than killing or leaving them in the farmyard in The Rattlesnake Decision. See the California Herps website for links on dealing safely with rattlesnakes and more tips on distinguishing rattlesnakes from gopher snakes.
Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus oreganus
Pacific gopher snake - Pituophis catenifer catenifer