Thursday, July 26, 2018

Rattlesnakes in Chemung County

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator; and Bridget Sharry, Tanglewood Nature Center
Roger the rattlesnake at Tanglewood Nature Center. Photograph by Gail Norwood.

It is little secret that we humans share our local surroundings with timber rattlesnakes. While these snakes can pose a threat to humans, there is a lot of misinformation out there about how great the risk is and people don’t always recognize the benefits of having these creatures around. This blog post pulls together some historical and ecological information about these snakes to hopefully give you a new appreciation of their place in our county.

Chemung County residents have always known there were rattlesnakes around. While the newspapers are filled with information and accounts of seeing the snakes in the hills around the county, there are very few reports of local bites. Most of the articles are about people killing the snakes, not the other way around. While many people encountered the snakes accidentally while hunting or farming, others engaged in some dangerous behaviors to catch the snakes.

The rattlesnake stories of Eugene Berthod, better known as “Gene the Frenchman,” were notorious with locals. Berthod owned the Mountain House, a location where the snakes were a common sight. In 1901, he gave a talk to the Pine Cliff Club about the snakes. In that talk, Berthod detailed how he and his sons would hunt them, including how his boys would sometimes crawl into a rock pile and pull them out by their tail (this is a bad idea. Please don’t try this at home!). He would sometimes keep them alive and on display in a box at the Mountain House. That backfired one time when the snakes shifted the glass off the box and escaped into the house. No one was harmed but Berthod claimed for a while after, they would sometimes see the snakes pop their heads through knotholes in the floor. 

A 1910 article gave information about copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, mostly in an effort to quell public fear and offer tips for preparedness to sportsmen who would be most likely to frequent the snakes’ natural habitat. Sportsmen were encouraged to wear stiff riding leggings and to carry some basic medical supplies in the unlikely event of a bite. Still, the article urged that while caution was always to be exercised, fear should not lead people to engage in the “wholesale slaughter of every snake one meets in his travels.”

In 1939, the Star-Gazette published an article about Carl Steffen, a resident of West Hill in Elmira. Steffen was interested in the snakes and learned how to capture them alive. Noticing that most Elmirans had never actually seen one, he would occasionally capture one and display it in a large box with a glass top. Steffen had little fear of the snakes, and tried to dispel some misconceptions, telling the newspaper, “Some people claim that a rattler will chase a human being. I believe that they will go the other way if they can find a place to hide. However, it sometimes seems to me that a rattler has a one track mind. If a human being is standing between a snake and a convenient rock pile, the snake will go right between a man’s legs to get where he wants to go.”
Elmira Star-Gazette, July 18, 1939
Now for some science. We have sound scientific research suggesting that the snakes are not that dangerous: 
  • Low number of snake dens / remoteness of the dens / low reproductive rate. Right, so, one thing to keep in mind is that all snakes are cold-blooded (ectothermic) meaning that they cannot produce their own body heat - they are the same temperature as their environment, and so if they get too cold, they have to go looking for a warmer spot. Most of the year, the temperature in our beloved NY is ranges from "cold" to "very cold" which means that these snakes can only survive if they have access to a den site below the frost line where they can cozy up with each other and wait out the winter. They are only out and about for roughly four months (technically they can emerge as early as May, and might stay awake as late as October). At Tanglewood we usually spot the first snake right around Father's Day. So already - you're not going to see them for most of the year - and they only survive with a very specific and safe den, away from human disturbance, preferably on rock-strewn wooded hills. There just aren't a lot of den sites available, and humans have been known to demolish den sites for construction projects. (DEC map of distribution) Some estimates of den sites throughout the ENTIRE state of NY are as low as 205 dens remaining. Considering that the species' historic range used to cover just about everywhere in the state, yikes! 200 dens is a frighteningly low number - that's not a lot of options for waiting out 8-9 months of winter weather. Preserving habitat for the timber rattlesnake is a top priority, especially since the snakes are listed as "threatened" - meaning that their numbers have declined precipitously and if their numbers continue to drop at this rate, they will be headed towards being endangered, and eventually extinct. Keeping those dens safe is especially important because the timber rattlesnakes have a very slow rate of reproduction: a female snake is sexually mature when she's around 7 to 11 years old. She has to survive to be at least seven years before she can even think about the next generation! That's seven years of not being eaten (by birds of prey, by bigger snakes, etc) and not getting hit by a car (timber rattlesnakes move very slowly and tend to freeze when they feel the vibration of approaching large objects - they stay still and get hit) and catching enough dinner and not getting too cold and not getting sick and finding her way back to her natal den seven years in a row. Whew. And once she is mature and does find a male to reproduce with, she only has about 8-9 babies (called "buttons" - so cute!). And after that, she takes another 3-4 years off before reproducing again. This slow reproductive makes it very, very difficult for the species to grow. 
  • All this to say: it's unlikely that most of us will ever see a timber rattlesnake in the wild at all. You can always come visit Roger at Tanglewood - he's behind glass, so you can see that handsome guy up close and very safely. 
  • Number of bites in NY. " New York there have been no records of human deaths attributable to rattlesnakes in the wild during the last several decades. Contrary to popular opinion, a rattlesnake will not pursue or attack a person unless threatened or provoked." (DEC)
  • Dry bites. The timber rattlesnake has the ability to use or not use venom when he or she bites. They use that venom for catching and immobilizing small prey like mice and chipmunks. They often do not use venom when they are attacked or harassed by large animals (humans) because they know they can't eat us. We are too big to be prey.
  • Docility of snakes / how badly you have to bother them to get bitten / Ben Franklin. When scared, the timber rattlesnake tends to freeze or slowly sneak away from the threat. If severely scared, they curl up and rattle their tail - an unmistakeable sound, not a subtle sound at all. If you're really harassing a snake and he or she is frightened of your terrifying antics, you will probably hear them loud and clear. If you keep on reaching towards them and try to grab them, then of course, they might bite. In fact, they are so unlikely to strike without warning that Ben Franklin admired their character, and thought the timber rattlesnake was a great role model for the young United States: "She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. ...
  • What kind of factors lead to humans getting bitten? Mostly being drunk and reaching towards the snake to pick it up after it warns you. 85 percent of bites are to the fingers and hands57 percent of snakebite victims were handling the snake at the time of the bite. 28 percent of snakebite victims were intoxicated. Just walk away and don't try to wrestle the poor threatened snake, okay?
  • Reducing Lyme disease. Remember that the snakes are using venom to incapacitate their small prey - often feeding on the white-footed mouse, a huge vector for ticks and Lyme disease. The snakes consume the mouse whole and end up eating the ticks attached to the mice, too: "each timber rattler removed 2,500-4,500 ticks from each site annually."
Roger the rattlesnake at Tanglewood Nature Center. Photograph by Gail Norwood
and that humans are very dangerous to snakes: 
  • Low number of snakes. They are a threatened species, on track to become endangered. 
  • Legal (before 1971) and illegal killing. There were bounties (people were paid money by state or local agencies to kill timber rattlesnakes) until 1971 in New York. Many people continue to kill timber rattlesnakes - which is illegal! They are listed as a threatened species, so killing a timber rattlesnake comes with a substantial fine. But some people are so emotional about the sight of a timber rattlesnake that they kill it, as illegal, irrational, and irresponsible as it is to harm a threatened and shy species. In fact, we've had several instances in which people have killed a snake and then sent photos of the decapitated snake to us as a facebook message, asking us to identify the species of the poor snake. So far, no one has killed a timber rattlesnake - they've been killing garter snakes, rat snakes, and in one case, a corn snake. Poor snakes: none of them venomous, none really dangerous, and all cruelly dispatched by someone so afraid of a timber rattlesnake they didn't look closely enough to see what the snakes actually were. 
  • Habitat destruction. Humans continue to build on habitat that is critical for snake survival. Roads and traffic pose particular danger to the snakes, as they are very slow (can't outrun a car) and when they sense the vibration of an approaching large object, they freeze. If I'm driving, that gives me the opportunity to drive around it carefully and call for someone to safely remove the snake - but studies have shown that some drivers will go out of their way to hit and kill a snake with their car. (If you do find a timber rattlesnake in the road or anywhere else you'd rather it not be, call 911 and dispatch will contact a local licensed rattlesnake handler to come move the rattler to a safer location.) 
The research about snakes - their important role in the environment, the hazards they face, and the reticence to strike a human - should guide human behavior as we navigate our lives in timber rattlesnake territory. (And, she adds cheerfully, the entire Twin Tiers should be rattlesnake territory! "A den on every hill and a chicken in every pot!" in a FDR radio voice.) It's too often the case that our human neighbors react with unnecessary fear instead of reasonable caution. So the work at Tanglewood continues - we just keep reaching out, educating kids and adults alike, and sharing science. I hope that at least a few people every year find their dislike for the rattlers is unfounded, and discover a new appreciation for our timid, tick-eating neighbors. 

The timber rattlesnake is a crucially important part of our ecosystem, and their presence enriches our quality of life - here's to healthy populations of snakes and humans alike. 

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