Monday, December 5, 2016


By Kristy McCaffrey

I live near open desert north of the Phoenix metropolitan area in Arizona and we have frequent interactions with rattlesnakes. I thought I’d share a few pictures with you all and perhaps dispel a few myths.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

We have Western diamondback rattlers. Their distinguishing feature is a series of black and white rings on the tail. This has helped me to quickly identify a snake I encounter, since bull snakes appear almost identical in markings but aren’t poisonous. Western diamondbacks aren’t aggressive unless cornered and will try to escape you at the first possible opportunity. However, when we find them on our property we do capture and relocate the reptile since we have dogs.

A bull snake that wandered into
our backyard. At first glance,
they look like a rattlesnake.

One myth is that snakes hibernate. We’ve not found this to be the case. In colder weather, they are less mobile but we’ve nevertheless seen them. If we’re in the desert, these encounters are benign because the snake is too cold to coil and can’t strike. But if the snake is near our house—usually resting against a wall to get warm—they can be a bit more feisty.

We often find rattlesnakes hidden in the dirt around
our house. Don't wear flipflops while doing
yard work.

Rattlesnakes are pit vipers. They have a heat sensing pit located behind each nostril that can detect temperature differences, sometimes only a fraction of a degree apart. The heat given off by an animal can be sensed by the snake to determine if it is predator or prey. In captivity, they can live as long as 20 years. Their main source of food is mice, rabbits, lizards, gophers, and other small animals.

A baby rattler my husband caught just outside of our garage.
In the summer, they're attracted to water and this one
was lounging in a puddle.

Another myth dispelled—you can tell the age of a rattlesnake by counting the number of rattles it has. Each time a snake sheds its skin, a new rattle is added. However, these can break off. Also, the frequency of shedding varies from snake to snake, so counting rattles isn’t a reliable way to confirm age.

How do we capture such a strong and dangerous creature? My husband uses a long stick with tongs at the end. He wrangles the snake, then lifts it into a tall garbage can with a tight lid. In the past, we’ve loaded the can into our truck, driven several miles away, and let the snake go while remaining in the truck bed to avoid it slithering toward us. But we’ve recently learned that this can be a death sentence for the rattler because it will be unable to find its water source. We now transport the snakes about a mile away, but still within their territory.

I’m sure you’re wondering—why don’t we kill them? Many of our neighbors do. While they aren’t my favorite desert critter to encounter, they do have every right to be here. Moving them from our property allows my husband and I to honor their presence as an important link in the desert ecosystem.


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Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Kristy! I'm so grateful for people like yourself and your husband who are willing to put in the time and effort to relocate the snakes rather than kill them. They are magnificent creatures, aren't they? Wishing you and your family and all your critters both domestic and wild a happy holiday season!

Kristy McCaffrey said...

I agree--they are magnificent. I'm still not completely comfortable handling them, and wouldn't if my husband weren't with me, but it seems terribly wrong to kill them. I do love the bull snakes. They're really quite sweet. We've had some big ones around our house. Of course, as soon as we start oohing and ahhing over them, they leave as quickly as they can and don't return. :-)