Friday, April 30, 2010

Buzzer Gets Its Color

Sunday's rattlesnake got iced.  On Monday, I carried it in an ice chest with a padded ice pack for the one-half mile trek to the relocation spot.  Cooling the snake lowers its metabolism and makes it less active during the release process.  However, as soon as I shook this snake out of the pillowcase and immobilized it with snake tongs, it started rattling.  With its head pinned to the ground, I quickly dipped its tail in green then purple ink and tossed it down the hill to its new habitat.  The ink job was messy since the rattler kept shaking its tail, but the marking was done.

 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.

See also:

Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus oreganus
Pacific gopher snake - Pituophis catenifer catenifer


  1. Excellent post!!
    Very informative and perfectly timed for the season. Many folks in my area (Napa valley, CA) who completely freak out at a fleeting sighting of a snake could learn alot by reading this. Incidentially, these folks are typically the people who grab a shovel without knowing (or caring, really) what type of snake it is whenever they see one. So maybe it wouldn't do them any good. Some just don't understand a snakes place in this world, regardless of the type.
    Have you presented this article to any publications or newspapers? I'll bet some would run it!

  2. I think many of us have an instinctive fear of snakes and our culture makes it worse. I hope that as people learn more about snakes, they gain some respect . . . thus, I blog. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Cindy

    SEE I TOLD YOU SO! Nice, very nice.

    Excellent description, even with the knowledge I have I am always amazed at how much a gopher snake surprises me. DT

  4. I agree - excellent post! This information is familiar to me, but having it illustrated so well makes this a great reference & resource. Thanks so much!

  5. Ditto - great post, informative and well-illustrated. Thanks.

  6. I live in southern California and I need help with identification ive cought a young snake and it has characteristics of both the rattlesnake and the gopher. after the under carriage it has the double scale till tip of tail said to meen non venomous I can not see a heat sensing pit (Jacobson organ). Being so young it hasn't any rattlethe only thing making me think it is a rattler is it has an elliptical pupil. If I send photos can you help identify it for me?

    1. I strongly advise you to not handle snakes if you cannot identify them. You can go to the California Herps website to look at the information and photos there: Please be careful when returning the snake to its habitat or nearby.

  7. Hi Cindy.
    When do snakes hibernate in the La Honda, San Mateo area? and when do they become active again? I tried googling this info and can't find it. Also, I was wondering is western yellow-bellied racer snake venomous or harmless and is it common to this area. I loved your post on the King snake- i was fortunate enough to encounter one on top of Mission Peak- it was in the process of eating a rather large rattle snake-head first! quite the scene


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