The Timber Rattlesnake: Perceptions vs. Reality
In doing a continuous field study of Timber Rattlesnakes in the Lake George region over the past three decades, I’ve had the privilege of meeting many people who have encountered a live rattlesnake, or who, while they may never have seen one, otherwise may have an opinion about them. My aim here is to summarize the biology of the Timber Rattlesnake and to frame this perspective toward outdoor enthusiasts, hikers, and homeowners who may encounter a rattlesnake in the wild. I hope to dispel a pervasive negative view of this wildlife species.
Among many memories associated with rattlesnakes and people, one incident stands out. I was called to a vacation camp where I found the owners – already familiar with rattlesnakes and equipped with snake-handling tools – had captured three large rattlesnakes and placed them in a garbage can. The residents told me that the snakes were seen, one at a time within a 24-hour period, at exactly the same spot in a grassy area near their house where several families were on vacation with about half a dozen small children playing around a path and a nearby rocky-grassy area where the snakes were found. As I removed and bagged each snake, the kids sat and watched, asking many questions. The incident illustrates that Timber Rattlesnakes, while dangerously venomous, are not aggressive. The parents told me that they and the children had walked past the snakes’ resting spot several times, close to the coiled snakes, before each was seen. Fortunately, the homeowners were familiar with rattlesnakes and their behavior, and, acquainted with me and my study, were willing to cooperate in safely removing the snakes.
Over the past three decades, my field study has revealed new information on the Timber Rattlesnake’s life history. It is a long-lived species; recent recaptures of marked snakes show that the maximum confirmed lifespan exceeds 40 years. Adults survive at about 90% per year, thus explaining the exceptional longevity. Males reach sexual maturity at ages of 4 to 5 years, but may not breed until full size is attained at around 10 years of age. Females do not reproduce for the first time until an age of 9 or 10 years and have a low birthing frequency, reproducing only at 3-, 4-, or 5-year intervals. Due to the high energy demands of reproduction, apparently only a few adult females are able to reproduce up to six times during their lifetime. The litters comprise an average of about 8 newborns.
In the summer mating season, male rattlesnakes move often and therefore may come into contact with humans, as in the incident described above. Mating occurs in July and August when individuals of both sexes are dispersed throughout the landscape.
During the summer, rattlesnakes move frequently and may be found crossing highways or making unannounced visits to houses, back-yard bird feeders, and campsites. But in its deciduous forest habitat, the Timber Rattlesnake is cryptic and is seldom seen. It is an important predator of small mammals (mice, voles, chipmunks) and thus plays an important role in the natural food web. In turn, the snakes are preyed upon by larger predators such as coyotes, bobcats, hawks, and owls.
On a hiking trail on a warm summer day, encountering a rattlesnake is an uncommon but memorable outdoor experience. The snake’s behavior contributes to the low danger of rattlesnake bite to hikers while they are in rattlesnake country. Shy and retiring, timber rattlesnakes normally are not aggressive and will attempt to escape. However, if provoked or disturbed, a Timber Rattlesnake may hold its ground defensively, coiled and rattling, until the human intruder disappears. Common-sense precautions are simple: enjoy seeing a live rattlesnake, perhaps photograph it, and then leave it alone.
I’ve noticed a recent trend among hikers and nature enthusiasts who express their desire to see and photograph a wild rattlesnake. There has been a noticeable change in attitude from that of decades past when most people of this area remember the bounty on rattlesnakes when the snakes were killed and turned in for a payment from county treasuries. As recounted in a recent book, “Timber Rattlesnakes in Vermont and New York” by Jon Furman, bounty systems were enacted in three New York counties (Warren, Washington, and Essex) in the mid 1890s, only ending some forty years ago with the passage of New York’s modern Environmental Conservation Law. In 1983, the state enacted legal protection, listing the Timber Rattlesnake as a threatened species.
Factors involved in the decline of this species in New York State are primarily those associated with active persecution and collecting during the twentieth century. Many populations were driven to extinction throughout the state over the past two centuries. In recent years, an improved public perception of the Timber Rattlesnake as a wildlife species integral to the natural lands of New York State has become more noticeable. In the span of three decades since its protection, much progress has been made in managing this species, and, through media attention and popular articles, this effort is beginning to change public attitudes concerning the snake.