Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Last Purple Rattlesnake

Northern Pacific rattlesnake captured September 27, 2012 in backyard at Dipper Ranch.
Rattle dipped in purple calligraphy ink.
Thursday evening I got buzzed while carrying the last bucket of water to the garden. At the Dipper Ranch, it is risky to wander outside on a hot summer night. I'd been rushing to finish projects in the yard when the warning sound at my feet made me realize it was nearly dark. I halted, pinpointed the vibrating blur, and slowly backed away with the bucket between me and the rattlesnake.

In the dark, it appeared to be the largest rattler I'd ever seen in my yard, maybe two and one-half feet long with a girth the size of my wrist. I know rattlesnakes get much larger, but for the Dipper Ranch this was a biggie. At first I was relieved to see the rattler quickly slipping away but when I realized it was heading towards the gap under the porch, I thought, "No, I don't want a rattlesnake living under my house!"

I was certain this was the same snake that buzzed me a few evenings earlier when I was sliding open the barn door. Then, it was too dark to see the culprit, so I abandoned the wheelbarrow outside for the night and said a prayer for the two brush rabbits that sleep in the barn. A second buzzing in one week was ominous. I wasn't sure how long this strategy of mutual retreat would continue. It was time to  catch this rattler.

Brush rabbits often take up residence in the barn in the spring and fall. This one snuck into the yard early one morning to drink out of the birdbath.
So I set down the water bucket, dashed inside to put on heavy boots, and out again to retrieve my snake capturing tools in the garage. My boots were feeling reluctant. Never before had I tried to catch a rattlesnake by flashlight. When I cautiously peered around the corner of the porch, it was hard to make out anything because my shaking hand was bouncing the light beam around. I was about to quickly give up when I noticed a loose pile of rope on a concrete footer. Who left that there? Fortunately, my heavy boots kept me pinned in place as the rope dissolved into a rattlesnake in the uneven light. While I was getting ready for our showdown, the snake must have crawled past the open gap under the porch and curled up against a post to survey the backyard.

I tried to remember the lessons of The Rattlesnake Decision. Yes, the rattler was still and positioned well for capturing. If I was careful and quick, I could do this even in the dark and it was the right thing to do. I just needed to be calm and then move precisely, always having a way to back out. No panicking in the dark.

I could use the snake tongs first to lift the empty bucket by its handle and set it on its side in front of the post, and then to nudge the rattler into the bucket, flip the bucket upright and slam on its lid. That's basically how it went although the seconds seemed like minutes as I whispered myself through it. When the bucket lid made a loud click as I spun it into locked position, I yelled and inside the bucket the snake thumped and buzzed, but still, the deed was done. I sat on the kitchen steps and watched the stars until I was ready to fetch the bucket and put the captured snake away for the night.

What is it about the setting of the Dipper Ranch farmyard that attracts so many rattlesnakes?
The hard part was over, however, I still needed to move the big snake away from our house and outbuildings. I kept it locked in the bucket in a dark section of the garage while waiting for cool weather when snakes are sluggish and easier to move. But we were having an Indian summer and there were no cool mornings or foggy afternoons. It just kept getting hotter every day. By Sunday, it was so hot I stayed inside all day. Even there, my bare toes were tingling "snake weather - watch out" when I tucked them under the sink overhang to wash dishes or brushed against the bedskirt.

Several times on hot days, I have found rattlesnakes on shaded concrete. Another spot to be alert.
In the late afternoon, I went outside to make sure there was water in the cattle troughs and bird baths. As I passed the picnic table, an odd shape caught my eye among the fallen maple leaves. There was a small rattlesnake curled up against the shady side of a brick as if to absorb the relative coolness of concrete on such a hot day. Small and in daylight, this rattler was easy to catch, and it went into its own bucket in the garage.

The next morning was still hot but I didn't want to cache any more venomous critters in the garage, so I loaded the two buckets in the back of my car as I left for work. The large snake hammered away inside the bucket as I set it in the back of the Subaru. I knew the bucket lids were securely locked but I was still jumpy as I drove the short distance to the gate with two rattlesnakes aboard.

It had been 4 years since I last released any rattlesnakes near the gate which is only about 1/10th of a mile from the house and that was when the whole business of marking rattlers began. It was after that incident that I asked Mr. Cascabeles if perhaps I wasn't moving the rattlesnakes far enough, and as an experienced snake handler, he suggested I mark their rattles with distinct colors. The process is to dip their rattle in a nearby open jar of ink while the snake's head is securely clamped in the snake tongs when otherwise capturing or releasing them. Do not try this yourself, you really need to know what you are doing to be safe! If you want an explanation of why I do this, see Buzzer Gets Its Color.

Parking at the gate with two buckets in hand, I waved at my neighbors as they drove by all the while trying to hide the snake tongs. Some of them don't understand why I relocate rattlers instead of killing them, some of them have admitted to relocating rattlers to unspecified locations along Alpine Road (the Dipper Ranch is bordered by Alpine Road for about one mile), and most of them have admitted that they don't see as many rattlers around their home as I do around mine. I passed the gate and walked over a hill so that the natural grade would encourage the released snakes to move in a direction away from the house.

The surprisingly heavy snake trying to hide in the bucket.
I had already marked the small rattlesnake's tail in purple ink while I was capturing it. And since the big rattlesnake was calm on the release morning, I was able to securely get it out of its bucket with the snake tongs, and dip its tail in the purple ink too. In the soft morning light, I tossed both marked rattlesnakes down the hill. They remained still but alert in the brown grass of their new surroundings which gave me time to take a few photos and quietly retreat.

One last indignity - a brightly marked rattle. Notice that the tail suddenly becomes much wider at about 6 white rings up from the rattle. This may be the location of the vent on the underside and this shape indicates this might be a female rattlesnake.
As I drove away, I kept thinking how heavy the large rattlesnake was when I lifted it out of the bucket with the snake tongs. I had just seen the barn rabbits drinking out of the backyard birdbath, so they weren't loading down the big snake. Northern Pacific rattlesnakes give live birth from August through October in California. Was it possible this snake was pregnant? Obviously, I had not squeezed the sides of the large rattlesnake to determine if there were developing eggs in there, but a snake's sex can sometimes be told by the size and shape of its tail. On a male snake, the tail tapers gradually to the end (excluding the rattle), whereas on a female snake there is an immediate constriction of the tail below the vent.  That evening, I looked through my photos of the purple rattlesnake and also checked photos of other large rattlers I had moved. The purple rattlesnake's tail showed a sudden narrowing in width about an inch and a half above the rattle, so perhaps it was a female and possibly it was pregnant.

This marked snake was moved from the west bay of the barn in June 2010. The tail gradually tapers to the base of the rattle making this probably a male rattlesnake.
Over the past 5 years, I have relocated 23 rattlesnakes away from the Dipper Ranch farmyard. Of those relocated snakes, I have marked 17 as a way for me to assess whether they are coming back to the yard after relocation and to get a general idea of the local population size. I have never seen any of the marked rattlesnakes again. That probably means I have been relocating them an adequate distance to keep them from returning to the farmyard and trouble. Other possibilities are that their colorful tails may be causing increased predation of the snakes or that the ink may be coming off so I cannot detect their return. I doubt that calligraphy ink would completely wash off and the distal rattles generally stay attached to the snake each time it sheds. The zero recapture rate also indicates there are a lot of rattlesnakes on the Dipper Ranch.

This heavy snake was moved from the orchard in October 2011. Its rattle is unusually short for the overall size of the snake indicating some segments had probably snapped off. The body of this rattlesnake is very wide above the tail so this is probably a female.
This weekend, I went through all twelve of my Dipper field notebooks from the past five years to review any rattlesnake notes. I was a little stunned when the sum of relocated rattlesnakes added up to 23. That's a lot of rattlers. Including the two that didn't get relocated (one was killed, one got away beneath a shelf in the barn and was never found), that's an average of five rattlers in my home territory a year. My toes are curling up at the thought. This marking experiment has gone on long enough. I just did my morning rounds of the farmyard and the purple rattlesnakes have not reappeared after one week, so I am satisfied that the relocation part of my strategy is working and I do not need to mark anymore rattlesnakes at the Dipper Ranch. Instead, I am thinking about better avoidance strategies such as developing the habit of reading books and watching movies inside on hot summer nights.

I had to move this snake from the backyard in order to set up equipment to view the solar eclipse in May 2012. Its tail shape indicates it is probably a male rattlesnake.
Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus oreganus 


  1. A good read and I am glad that you didn't kill the snake as most people would do, but then I knew you never would anyway.

  2. Awwww, but the photo ops!

    When going about my work, I've always assumed I can do whatever is necessary, as long as I'm wearing thick jeans and good work boots. My understanding is that snakeys would have a hard time biting past these things. Is it possible for you to modify, not your entertainment or habits, but your summertime evening garments?

  3. What is the risk of being bit by a rattlesnake? Of the hundreds of trained biologists and park staff I know, only one has been bitten by a rattlesnake and that snake did penetrate his work pants. He was hospitalized but is okay now. On the other hand, I hear about hikers, picnickers and campers getting bit more often mostly because they are picking them up with their bare hands (?!#!?), or otherwise putting their hands or feet in places that the rattlesnakes are hiding. Knowing the habits and habitats of our only local venomous animal is important to keep yourself safe and I hope that I am helping people get educated. Hmmm, but an excuse to buy another pair of boots, oh yeah. Anyone else have some input or experience about the risk of being bitten by a rattlesnake?

  4. A great read, Cindy. Though, I suspect I may have dreams tonight... I'm a newbie when it comes to identifying snakes, recently mistaking a 3+ foot gopher snake for a rattler. I love to see them - at a distance.

  5. Greg: Snakes can be fascinating, even at a distance, so I am glad you are noticing them. I have photos and tips for telling the difference between gopher snakes and rattlesnakes at post below.

  6. Oh, so many fun things.
    1. You may be starting a new fashion trend among herpetofauna--kinda like tattoos. =)
    2. Rattlesnakes are my #1 excuse for buying NICE, fatty 100% leather boots. Pants that extend over boots are also good, and socks (whatever increases stuff between your body and the fangs).
    3. I, too, have heard that a vast majority of rattlesnake bites are from people who grab rattlesnakes (as you say) with bare hands ON PURPOSE.
    4. I don't know anyone who's been bitten, either, and my co-workers are pretty much all wildlife people.
    5. Thanks for the tips re: male vs. female rattlers--sweet!

  7. Now I have everyone stirred up at work about rattlesnakes and talking about who gets bitten. A co-worker took his kids to a birthday party this weekend that had someone with reptiles to entertain the kids, mostly large constrictor types. Anyway, the gent showing the snakes later admitted to my co-worker that he once got bit by a rattler while hiking when trying to show a buddy how to pick up a rattlesnake with your BARE hands. He was in a coma in the hospital for 3 days! Don't pick up rattlesnakes - yah, got it.

  8. Woah! coma for 3 days?!? Woah!

    I remember the herp guys I knew said nobody ever dies from it, then a few months later a homeless guy living in a San Diego canyon by the beach died from it. 'Course he didn't exactly have health coverage or get lifeflight-ed to the hospital, and probably wasn't super healthy to start with, but nevertheless, that was it for him.

  9. Cindy,
    When I used to do the rattlesnake safety talk at Death Valley and I asked the audience who had been bit by a rattlesnake, someone always raised their hand. I always asked if they would share the story and 95% of the time they were putting their hands or feet somewhere they should not have been. Most of the bitees were male, and most were under 25 when it happened (though almost all of them were over 70 when they told the story). Many a story involved moving hay bales with bare hands.

  10. Cindy
    I want to chime in on this. Being bitten by a rattlesnake is no joke, bad, bad, bad all the way around. When I was working in the Lexington Basin with De Anza there was a woman that would occasionally talk to us about the camera trap work we were doing. Well she did not stop by for several months during the study and when she finally did she told us of being bitten by a rattlesnake and spending 28 days in the hospital as a result. She also said she still felt “bees” in her toes, fingers, and lips. This was three months after being bitten.
    However, before taking an action like killing a rattlesnake just because it is a rattlesnake I think we need to understand who this animal is and what eco-system services it provides.
    Here is my simple version; major role - rodent control, lop a couple of snakes heads off and the old “j” curve of increased rodent population is presented to a property, put out traps and rodenticide then you have the possibility of secondary illness and kill off of local mesopredators. Then repeat, repeat, repeat, and repeat… Bad for everyone.
    I say pay attention where you put you hands and feet when each one of us is in these out door environments. Even when we live, ranch, raise livestock in the wild land fringe, as a friend use to tell me “situational awareness”.
    Oh I have had my close calls with rattlesnakes but somehow I have managed to avoid the bite for years. Typically, much like the puma, the rattlesnake wants nothing to do with us. Thanks for posting your adventures. DT

  11. DJ: really good input from someone who has been "on the line" with rattlesnakes and also thought through the fear. I never, never want to be bitten by a rattlesnake. And yet because I have chosen a career in the great outdoors and I additionally chosen to live on the Dipper Ranch, there is a chance. With those choices, it's my responsibility to watch how I move through the landscape to be safe. That awareness has kept me safe so far and has also provided me with more insight to the natural world around me. This is what I mean by "The Rattlesnake Decision" - knowing the risks, thoughtfully dealing with them, and becoming even more aware of my natural surroundings and my own mental capabilities at the same time. Now you have me thinking about how this applies to pumas. Thanks for the warning example and the big picture.

  12. Oh my!!! I cannot believe this! We don't have anything like this around my parts (Portland, OR) and I cannot imagine. Glad you are okay!

  13. Very interesting! Wow, I would be a little disturbed as well by the number of rattlesnakes you are getting on your property but I am glad you are relocating , not killing. They do have thier place in the world! Great post!

  14. Dang...I love those pacific rattlers. Our native Crotalus is C. horridus.....which is also a beauty. But there's something about the heavy contrast between the bands on the head and the tail of C. oreganus that I find stunning.


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