September 2006 Along with the serene beauty of the open space that surrounds our neighborhood, we must also accept the fact that we live in rattlesnake territory. Perhaps no other creature in the desert southwest is as feared or misunderstood as the rattlesnake. However, if met with respect rather than fear, rattlesnakes are fascinating and generally quite shy creatures.
The most common rattlesnake in our area is the western diamondback, one of nearly two dozen species and subspecies in the western U.S. They are easily recognized at a distance by the triangular shaped head and a black-and-white striped tail section that follows the brownish diamond-patterned body. If you wander too close to one, they will warn you with a distinctive buzz of their tail, which when you hear it, is not un-like the buzz of a cicada.
Up to two-dozen rattlesnake eggs are incubated within the female and then born alive in late summer. A wild snake will live for more than twenty years, adding a new segment to its rattle each time it sheds. Since snakes shed three to four times a year, in addition to breaking and losing rattle segments occasionally, the number of segments is not a reliable indicator of age. A healthy old rattler may grow to over seven feet long.
In all of the hours and hundreds of miles of wandering the Deem Hills and neighborhood paths, I have seen four rattlesnakes. One snake had recently been killed by a previous passerby. Another had made itself comfortable in a friends’ backyard. Two others were quietly sheltering under shrubs along the trail. In all of these cases, we took the opportunity to cautiously observe the snake with my 4-year-old son, using the moment to teach him that this is one creature we definitely could not pick up! Since snakes can only strike a distance of about one third their body length, you can safely observe them from about five feet or more.
Rattlesnakes are not aggressive towards humans by nature. We are simply too big too eat. However, like humans, they will try to defend themselves when they feel threatened. Thus, the vast majority of venomous snakebites are delivered to people who attempt to handle, harass, or kill the snake. The best thing to do when you see a rattlesnake is to heed their warning rattle, leave it alone and walk away. Most likely, it will slither away to safety, as they know that we are far more dangerous to them than they are to us. However, if you threaten it with a stick, or try to hurt or kill it, it may attempt to strike you.
If a snake decides to explore your backyard, there are humane ways to remove them. The Phoenix Herpetological Society (www.phoenixherp.com), whose primary mission is to promote coexistence, respect, and understanding of native reptiles, will relocate animals in conflict with human communities for a small fee. They will collect the snake with tongs and return them to natural desert habitat. Making sure that your yard is not attractive to rodents is the best way to make sure that snakes don’t also take up residence there.
Since May 2005, I have written a natural history column for a neighborhood newsletter published by Jennifer Moore called "Our Big Backyard: Natural History of the Deem Hills," and since 2010, "A Suburban Naturalist."All of these columns are reproduced here. Deem Hills is a City of Phoenix Desert Preserve located just north of Happy Valley Road in north central Phoenix, and just west of I-17. The Preserve and adjacent hills comprise over 900 acres of open space with several miles of hiking trails. For more perspectives from the Deem Hills and suburban Phoenix, also check out my companion blog, Kat Tracks.
As a naturalist with a special interest in botany and plant ecology, some of my greatest passions are to explore, photograph and write about native plants. If I can spark an awareness or interest in natural history in others along the way, that is my greatest reward.