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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2009


Snake Miseries

Rattlers get especially agitated in October. Here's how to spot them and stay out of their way.

It was mid-August and hot; the shadows were growing longer as the evening became more reality than hope. I was bear hunting when I rounded the point of a small ridge and there it was: a very big Blacktailed Rattlesnake.

It had an attitude, too — maybe because its girth was as big around as my wrist and its overall length was nearly three-quarters my height.

The rattler saw me and stopped and rattled menacingly as it moved into an "S" shape, trying to stare me down. In the end, it was a no contest; I sent it to snake-hell with a head shot from my .44.

Don't get me wrong: I don't kill every rattler that I come upon. Some are left to go on their merry, slithering way, but when it happens to be a large reptile, it dies.

Big snakes carry big venom and they can ruin a critter or human's day mighty quick. Critters, like young beef calves, or fawn antelope and deer, or even curious, unsuspecting dogs, are very likely to get bitten in the face as they nose down to see this unusual slinking creature.

So, to my mind, I'm doing all of them a favor — sorta like practicing preventive medicine. My only exception to this hard and usually fast rule is when I come upon a smaller but deadly Mojave rattler; they always must die. Why? Because their venom is one of the most potent around: The venom causes more respiratory problems in humans than any other known poisonous snake in North America. Free pass? No way!

The above incident was fresh in my mind when, just 10 days later, I was working in the garage and I heard both dogs barking in a nervous way. That meant they had come across some critter that they weren't sure about, or at least, it was bluffing them.

Immediately I thought snake, or at least skunk! I jumped up and ran up the hill to a large juniper tree where they were both barking at something under the tree in the deep shade. I didn't smell anything, so I was somewhat ready when I peered into the shadows and spied a very large snake!

In the dim light lay a quite agitated serpent, rattling its tail severely at the dogs. I could barely make out the telltale alternating stripes of a "Coontail" (Western Diamondback), the largest species of rattlesnakes, and he was truly big!

Buko, my smallest dog, was dangerously close. I frantically called both dogs off and towards the house; thankfully, they both immediately complied. Once down there, I grabbed that trusty .44 and headed back up, loading rounds of snake shot as I ran.

My adrenaline was at full flow as I neared the spot. But before my eyes could adjust, I spied the snake coming towards me. It didn't get any farther.

As my agitated nerves started to calm somewhat, and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I realized that I had actually shot what I call a "good snake" — a long bull snake of the gopher snake family.

It was 52 inches in length with a pattern very much like the before-mentioned Coontail. It indeed had stripes on the base of its serpentine tail, except they were dark and light brown, not white and black. The bull snake is adept at mimicking the rattler. It will vibrate its tail into leaves to sound like a rattler and also flatten out its head in an attempt to convince an attacker that it is deadly.

It sure fooled me — and I had looked hard at it twice!

If one gets on the Internet, all of the supposed "experts" say there are seven species of rattlesnakes in New Mexico. But according to my 1979 edition of The Audubon Society Guide to Reptiles, there are actually nine species and different subspecies here, and I contend that there are possibly more.

By far the largest, most widespread and dangerous species is the Western Diamondback — not because its venom is the most virulent, but because it can deposit so much in its victim. One was taken in Deming this year that measured eight feet! And I saw a photo of one killed in a campground not far from here in Arizona that topped eight feet and weighed close to 40 pounds! That one had a body as wide as a man's thigh.

The next in size are the Prairie and the Blacktailed rattlers; their venom is nothing to sneeze at when they reach big proportions, like the one I shot. These two species can reach lengths of five feet and girths as large as a human wrist.

Then there are the "smaller" species, usually attaining lengths of two to three feet and no more. They include the highly venomous Mojave, the Rock, Ridgenose, Hopi, Western Massasuga and Desert Massasuga rattlers. That brings the total to nine. Yeah, I'm splittin' hairs as some of these are categorized as sub-species.

But the Audubon guide way back in 1979 showed three more species whose territories come dangerously close to our borders. And since it's been 30 years, they could very well have migrated east by now in limited numbers.

These neighboring rattlers are the Twin-Spotted, the Tiger and the ever-dangerous Sidewinder! I have personally talked to two separate outdoorsmen who claim to have come across the Sidewinder in the deserts south of here back in the 1990's.

Let me add here that there are also 31 various non-poisonous serpents in our fair state and one very bad tiny dude called the Coral Snake, whose venom is the deadliest of all. I've read that if you get bit by one of these, you won't make it! Fortunately, its mouth is so small that a person would have to offer the web of his hand in order for the snake to find a place small enough to bite. So don't pick up a very colorful red, black and yellow snake even if you do think it is a pretty thing; you will die!

Two of these species of rattlers are endangered and thus protected by federal law. I don't suppose that many folks, including me, know what they look like, so if down south near the border it's best to leave them all alone. These two endangered species are the Rock and the Ridgenosed, and both are very shy and small snakes.

So what will you and I find in the immediate vicinity of Silver City and Grant County? Well, for sure the Coontail, the Prairie and the Blacktailed rattlers. I personally have encountered Prairies right here in the Silver City limits and the other two types within 20 miles of here.

Where do they reside? Be cautious around stacks of wood or brush, or rock piles or under sheds or trees or old cars or trailers that haven't been moved for a time. These snakes like deep grass and just about any place that is cool and shady.

I have encountered most under the shade of oak bushes and trees. And of course, they can be found anywhere at night! I remember reading in these pages of the local doctor who was down to Tucson and stepped out at night, got bitten by a Mojave, spent some time in the hospital and nearly died. ("The Snake and I" by Michael Sergeant, MD, December 2008.)

And I had a friend who lived in Silver Acres, just south of town, who one night opened the door to find a rattler sleeping on her front cement stoop.

But having said all of this, let me add that most rattlers don't want any part of us; they would rather run than fight. That's why they coil up and rattle that tail; it's a warning to tell us that they are there, and to please go away and leave them alone. Being coiled is a defensive posture, not an attack one. If you see one like that, just slowly back on out of there and make a detour. All will be well, I assure you.

If you come across one that is in an "S" posture, however, then beware! That is what I consider to be an attack mode, and I've had some of these come at me very, very fast. A rattler can only rise to a strike position of about one-third to one-half its body length, although one authority says that this figure can be two-thirds its body length.

They don't jump at you; they rise up and hinge their body and fall forward to strike. Of course, if they are moving at you and doing this, it can seem like they are jumping to strike. A big snake like the Blacktail that I recently encountered could conceivably rise up and hit me as high as the knee.

Nonetheless, it is quite a hair-raising experience!

Snakes become quite agitated in the month of October, primarily because they are getting ready to den up. I'm also told that when they get ready to shed, they are quite disagreeable. They like to den together, and I know of places where people have encountered as many as 30-50 rattlers together in October at den sites.

One final note: It turned out that the bull snake did indeed bite one of my dogs, but it was Misty, the larger one. The next day I found a very nasty wound on the front part of her shoulder, next to her brisket; it was over an inch in width. Closer examination revealed fang marks dragged across her flesh rather than punctures like a rattler inflicts.

The wound was infected, probably from the bacteria on the fangs from the snake having killed rodents. Now I'm glad I killed that snake, too. We don't need snakes with attitudes around the homestead. For some reason, I have found all big snakes of every species to always have some sort of chip on their non-existent shoulders. I do suggest that they believe their own press releases!

As always, keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may the Forever God bless you too!



When not ramblin' outdoors, Larry Lightner lives in Silver City.

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