Rattlesnakes at the Cove

Many of our visitors don’t realize that they’re in rattlesnake country when they descend into the canyon walls of the Cove Palisades, but with a little bit of awareness, there’s very little to fear.

We only have one type of venomous snake here: the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). There are lots of misconceptions about rattlers, formed out of fear and misunderstanding. Sadly, lots of rattlers get killed for these reasons. Rattlesnakes are important members of the ecosystem and deserve our respect, not our disdain. Knowing the facts will keep visitors and snakes alike happy and healthy!

Juvenile Western Rattler, from Wiki.

This post is designed to give you all the information you need about rattlers at the Cove, so it’s a little longer than usual posts, but knowledge is power! Click on “Read the Rest” to go to the full article.

Fact Vs. Fiction

First, let’s dispel some myths about rattlers:

1. Rattlesnakes aren’t “aggressive.” Aggressive snakes, of which there are only a few in the world, may give chase, bite with little provocation, and aren’t afraid of humans. Rattlesnakes do not have any of these traits: they never chase humans, they must feel very threatened to bite, and they would much rather get away from us than have any contact at all.

In fact, a few indigenous cultures in the U.S. considered the rattlesnake to be a “patient” animal because they knew how much pressure it took for a rattler to actually bite.

2. Rattlesnakes can’t jump. That being said, a rattler can lunge at least half its body length when biting.

3. Rattlesnakes don’t attack every time. The animal must feel very cornered and threatened; it doesn’t want to waste its venom on something it can’t eat. One quarter to one third of all rattlesnake bites are “dry,” meaning the snakes don’t inject any venom!

4. Rattlers (and all other snakes) don’t hide out in every dark crevice, waiting for unsuspecting victims. While it’s true that snakes favor cool crevices in hot summer months, they don’t hide there to be sneaky. They’re simply trying to escape the heat.

5. Rattlers (and other snakes) aren’t completely unpredictable. As with all other animals, snakes give clear signals as to whether they’re feeling threatened or calm. Knowing these simple signs can usually tell you what a snake is feeling.

With a little awareness about rattlesnake behavior, everyone can enjoy their time in rattlesnake country safely. While it’s impossible to guarantee that a bite will never happen, knowing how to respond to a bite will also ensure the least amount of trauma.

Rattlesnake Behavior

Rattlesnake behavior is dependent upon two main things: temperature and food. All reptiles need to warm up to get moving, and once they reach the right temperature, they then need to move in and out of shade to keep that temperature. On fair days, snakes can be active without overheating (so they may be out all day). On hot days, they need to seek shelter until the cooler temperatures of the evening (so they’ll be out in the evening). On cold days or mornings, they’re more likely to be sluggish (so they may be hiding all day). They like areas that retain heat, like stone, cement, and asphalt.

A rattler is mostly after rodents (which also like to hide in shady crevices). Adult Western Rattlers don’t get much larger than about 3 feet long, and prefer mice and other small mammals.

At the Cove, most of the older rattlers know that the campgrounds are full of people and dogs, and they tend to stay away. The younger rattlers, however, haven’t learned these lessons yet, and may stray into a campsite looking for a mouse that’s after food left behind by visitors.

Defensive posture, from Wiki.

If a rattlesnake feels threatened, it may or may not curl into a defensive S-shaped posture. It may raise its head and vibrate its tail, which makes more of a “bzzZZZZZZ” sound than a “rattle” sound. It may hiss as well. Baby rattlers don’t have a rattle – they only have one button until they start eating and shedding, so a baby can’t warn you. It’s a good idea to teach the kiddos to never handle small snakes while in rattlesnake country, because our other common snake, the Gopher Snake, looks much like a rattler even though it isn’t venomous. It is also true that baby rattlers can be dangerous because they haven’t learned how to moderate the amount of venom they inject, as adults have.

Avoiding Rattlesnakes at the Cove

Following some very basic rules will help to keep you safe in all rattlesnake country.

1. Know rattlesnake behavior so you’re aware of where they might be.

2. When climbing over rocks or logs, always look before you place your hands and feet.

3. Do a campsite check every now and then: lift up your tent before getting in, and don’t leave piles of items around your campsite where a snake could seek shade.

4. When using trails, always walk; don’t run. Snakes feel vibration better than they hear sounds, so if you walk, they have time to move off the trail. Surprising a snake by running can make it feel threatened. Stay on the trail and stay out of the brush, where visibility is low and you may not see a snake before you step on it.

5. Always keep your dogs on a leash. Dogs are curious by nature, and rattlers are afraid of canines because coyotes eat snakes in the wild. If a rattler senses a big dog nose snuffling around, it could bite defensively out of the fear of being eaten. A snake bite on the face of a dog can be deadly.

6. If you’re going for a long hike, say up the Tam-A-Lau trail, wear proper shoes and pants if you can. Flip flops are more comfortable, but won’t protect your foot if you surprise a rattler. Always carry a cell phone or take a buddy with you.

Now that you know how to avoid them, what do you do if you come across one? Simple: slowly back up, turn around, and go the other way. Just be slow and steady and leave it be. Never try to remove a rattler from a trail and if you spot one in a campground, call a ranger immediately. We are glad to retrieve these critters and release them somewhere safe!

Rattler Bites

Even though it’s very rare to be bitten by a venomous snake, knowing what to do can ensure the least amount of trauma. Each year in the U.S., there are about 8,000 venomous snake bites (compared to about 5 million dog bites). Of that number, only about 12 deaths occur per year. That’s a tiny percentage, and about 80% of those 8,000 bites occur because the person was trying to pick up or kill the snake. (About 15% happen to people that work with or keep venomous snakes, leaving only 5-10% of the 8,000 that happen accidentally out in the wild.)

So, leave the snake alone. Even a dead one retains the reflex to bite and inject venom for a while, so don’t handle dead ones either.

If you get bitten:

1. Remain calm. Panic moves the venom through your system faster.

2. Cut away any clothing and remove shoes or jewelry near the bite. It will swell, and you want to let it swell without restriction. Cutting clothing rather than taking it off will keep your heart rate down.

3. Get emergency medical help as fast as possible. If you have a cell phone, use it. If you’re hiking with a buddy, send them for help. Nearby hospitals are typically prepared for snakebite situations and at the Cove, the nearest hospital is only about 20 miles away.

4. Remain calm!

5. DO NOT: cut into wound, try to suck the venom out, apply ice, or apply a tourniquet. All of these methods are old myths that have been proven to do more damage than good in the event of a snake bite.

6. Did I mention remain calm?

The real danger of snakebites is in the soft tissue damage. As most of that 8,000 can attest to, the overwhelming majority survive venomous bites. However, everyone walks away with a scar. This is why you never want to damage the area further by cutting it open or attempting to restrict blood flow.

By preparing ourselves for sharing habitat with the Western Rattlesnake and respecting its needs, we can coexist and recreate safely. While their venom is powerful and needs to be taken seriously, rattlesnake encounters are uncommon and rarely dangerous (almost all encounters here are peaceful and end quickly as a ranger retrieves the snake). Rattlers are ancient, integral parts of the high desert community and we at the Cove give them great respect and admiration. We hope you will do the same!

If you have any questions or concerns about rattlesnakes at the Cove, please don’t hesitate to call a ranger or leave a note on the blog. Thanks for reading!

About coveranger

"One's happiness depends less on what he knows than on what he feels." - Liberty Hyde Bailey

Posted on August 29, 2013, in Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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