My first encounter with a rattlesnake did not end well for the snake. I was visiting my best friend and former neighbor who had moved from Denver to a farm in Nebraska. I must have been about 11, a big city girl, who knew zero about country living. One of my first lessons was that you should always watch where you put your feet and your seat! On my first day there, while on a picnic, I almost sat on a baby rattlesnake. Yikes! Luckily, I noticed it just in time. It was the first snake I’d ever seen, and as I screamed and ran, my friend’s father grabbed a hoe and chopped off the snake’s head. To this day, I feel bad that the snake had to lose its life because I wasn’t paying attention. And to this day, I have always been careful about where I put my feet and my seat.
Summers on the farm were an annual ritual until my friend was old enough to leave for college and I discovered that boys were more interesting than milking the cow, gathering eggs, and plucking the feathers off an unlucky chicken killed earlier that day for dinner. (I’ve been a vegetarian ever since.) Over the years I saw many rattlesnakes while visiting there, most of them meeting the same fate as the first one I saw. There were plenty of other non-venomous snakes around, but they were never killed as I was taught that they were “good snakes.” Bad or good I was terrified of them all. I recall an especially harrowing experience when, without looking first, I put my hand in a nest to collect eggs, only to discover that I was touching a bull snake who had beat me to the eggs. I dropped my egg basket to the floor breaking every one, ran screaming out of the hen house fast enough to break a speed record, and refused to collect eggs for the rest of my visit. Another life lesson learned: always pay attention to where you put your hands! This is especially true if you’re a gardener.
Snakes are a hard sell to many people, but I have learned to respect and admire them. They are so misunderstood. Snakes are certainly not the evil creatures that they are made out to be in folklore, myths and tall tales. They don’t have a mean bone in their body. Snakes are simply like any wild creature in that all they want is food, to protect themselves from predators, and to reproduce. These three things equal survival of their species. They don’t have a sinister agenda any more than a quail or a rabbit does. When encountering humans, their preference is to quietly move away to avoid confrontation. Rattlesnakes will only strike when agitated or startled. Everyone should exert a little caution during the warmer months if they are in rattlesnake habitat.
The Northern Pacific Rattlesnake is the only poisonous snake we have in Sonoma County. They are considered keystone predators, which are crucial to keeping our ecosystems in balance. They prey on rats, mice, voles, lizards, and other small reptiles and mammals. They help to control our rodent populations, which is a good thing!
How do we tell a rattlesnake from other snakes? Certainly, if you can see the tail, it is easy to identify them by their rattles. But you can easily identify them by their head as well. Rattlesnakes are part of the pit viper family. Pit vipers have triangular shaped heads, a bit of a neck, and elliptical eye pupils. They also have a stocky looking or heavy body. Nonvenomous snakes have a narrow head, which is sort of a continuation of their thin body. They also have round pupils.
Rattlesnakes like to live in dry, rocky areas. When we lived on Cavedale Road, we saw a few every year, as it was the perfect habitat for them. We didn’t like them around the house as we had dogs, but we didn’t want them killed either. We had a fearless neighbor who would come over, pick them up and put them in a large plastic trashcan for us. We would then drive down the road, agitated rattler in the back, and release them in an area where there weren’t any homes nearby. Luckily for us, the lid to the trash can always stayed put, but still, it was a slightly scary experience.
My husband and I tend to go by the “live and let live” philosophy. While we have yet to see any rattlesnakes on our property we know that rattlesnakes are dangerous and can cause serious harm. I understand that people do not want them around their house, especially if they have children or pets. There is an alternative to killing them. We are fortunate to have Sonoma County Reptile Rescue (www.sonomacountyreptilerescue.com) nearby in Sebastopol. They not only rescue reptiles that need rescuing, but they provide an invaluable service. If you would like to have a rattlesnake safely removed from your property – no charge, donations welcomed – they will come out and get it. Al Wolf, the founder of this wonderful rescue organization, is a warehouse of information when it comes to snakes. Sonoma County Reptile Rescue offers educational programs as well. I once went to one of Al’s presentations and was able to view many rattlesnakes from a safe distance – the best way to see them.
Sharon Ponsford is a a longtime volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and a former board member of the California Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators. She lives in Glen Ellen. If you have questions or would like to ask her about our local wildlife, please email her at email@example.com.