The Truth About Rattlesnakes

Rattlesnakes can be scary creatures. Learn ways to understand them better and what to do when you encounter one.

The Truth About Rattlesnakes

The noonday South Dakota sun had taken the morning chill away, and I was feeling it. There were two big Merriam’s gobblers locked up with four hens slowly pecking their way along the edge of a deep ravine. With good cover, I duck-walked to get a hundred yards ahead of their line of march, went prone and was belly-crawling to the edge of the sagebrush, which would put me 70 yards away from the birds. All I had to do, I reasoned, was show them my little Thunder Chicken with real fan attached and hope I could get drawn before the boys ran me over. It was perfect.

I heard it before I saw it. And when I heard it, I about soiled my Fruit of the Looms.

To someone that grew up tromping through the foothills of the Southwest, the sound of a rattlesnake shaking his tail-end musical instrument is as familiar as it is paralyzing. Once heard, it is never forgotten. It always kicks the heart rate into overdrive and starts the palms to sweating, while the you-know-what puckers up tighter than a gnat’s butt in a nosedive.

At the time I thought I was somewhat of a tough guy. I’d guided grizzly bear hunters in Alaska; bowhunted dangerous game myself; survived a fall off a cliff, a floatplane wreck and a couple of skiffs sinking; and been in some flat-out hairy places. But the knowledge that less than 12 inches in front of my face, hidden by the brush, was an agitated rattlesnake was more than I could handle.

It reminded me of the time I was filming one of those hunting TV shows down in Old Mexico. We were chasing Gould’s turkeys when, in mid-stride, I looked down and realized I was about to step right in the middle of a coiled and very lathered up Western Diamondback.

I launched like the Space Shuttle.

When it was all over, with a smidgen of false bravado, I asked the cameraman, “So, dude, did I sky like Jordan at hammer time?” He didn’t miss a beat. “Homey, you looked more like Gumby.”

Rattlesnakes live in many places and habitats in the Western Hemisphere, from mountains to deserts and plains. There are more than 24 rattlesnake species, and the snake uses its rattle both to warn potential aggressors to back off and to distract prey. The sound is created when hollow and bony doughnut-like segments in the rattle bang together.

People think you can age a rattlesnake by counting the number of rattles it has, but that’s not quite true since a rattler will grow a new rattle every time it sheds its skin, which it does more than once a year when it is young and, as it gets very old, just once every couple of years (they can live up to 25 years).

Like other snakes, rattlesnakes don’t have ears. However, a study whose results appeared in The Journal of Experimental Biology showed that sound waves cause vibrations in a snake’s skull that are then “heard” by their inner ear. They also detect movement by sensing vibrations in the ground. Their eyes see well, even in low light. 

The rattlesnake’s triangular head contains a hollow spot between the eyes and nostrils called a pit. This pit is actually a sensory organ that helps the rattlesnake hunt in darkness by detecting body heat.

Despite growing up to both fear and loathe rattlers and to kill every one I saw, I’ve mellowed over the years. After all, they’re just snakes being snakes and mean no harm. And they do help control rodent populations. So now, when I bump into one, I leave it be – the exceptions being when I’m out with a good bird dog or a youngster.

On this South Dakota afternoon, after the initial shock – and terror – I froze for a moment, assessed the situation and slowly slithered backward down the slope, bow in front of my face as a sort of Star Trekian shield. By the time the shaking stopped, the turkeys were long gone, but that was OK. I knew I could find more.

When I lived in Arizona, I'd run into several rattlers every year. That’s to be expected given the fact that I am in their backyard most days, hiking, bow shooting, deer hunting or dove hunting, whatever. Thus, one always needs to be aware of where one places their hands and feet – and even more aware of where one plops down. I’ve yet to be bitten, though once in South Texas a diminutive sidewinder all of about 12 inches long took a swipe at me and actually caught his little fangs in the cuff of my Carhartts. Who says white men can’t jump?

I have friends who are absolutely terrified of rattlesnakes. I’m more worried about those nasty vipers of the South, the copperhead and water moccasin, maybe because I am not as familiar with them and every time I see a moccasin it comes for me.


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