This weekend I got the opportunity to experience a wildlife phenomenon that’s rather far removed from the ocean and wildlife I usually study and write about. Turns out that my friend Andy bought 14 acres of land around the largest hibernation site for Timber Rattlesnakes that exists anywhere.
He did that quite on purpose. Why would anyone want a few green acres with about a thousand snakes whose Latin name is horridus? Three reasons: Because they belong there, they’re threatened in much of their range, and they need protection.
So where is this den, you’re asking? Well, I was asked not to say, for three reasons: because they’re threatened, they need protection, and there are too many people who would like to come and illegally take or kill the snakes.
The den is among some rocks, and at this time of year the snakes migrate—yes, migrate—to the den site, converging on it from some distance around. That means that if you are around the site, there’s a snake every few steps.
And that was a bit hairy. There were several of us, and only two of us (including me) wore any leg protection. It would have been pretty easy to step on one of these hard-to-see creatures. So we were very careful.
We watched some of them moving slowly through dry leaves, their flickering tongue picking up the scents of other snakes who’d preceded them.
And they were beautiful. Most were about three feet long. One was maybe four feet. A five foot Timber Rattler would be a monster-big one. They come in a yellowish and black forms, but even the yellowish ones have dark tails.
The snakes were mostly very docile. A couple decided to slowly move away. Most just stayed where they were. Confidence. None tried to bluff us or do anything aggressive. And in the main den opening I saw several snakes and human ashes. One man loved these snakes that much.
As you can imagine, though, most people are not kind to rattlesnakes. And while rattlesnakes are not particularly kind to people, people are by far the more aggressive of the two species. For a while, anyone killing a rattlesnake could get paid a “bounty.” Roads, habitat destruction, sheer hatred, and heavy pressure from collectors all take their toll. Their range has shrunk and many observers believe numbers at dens are down 50 to 80 percent in the last 40 years or so.
Until recently, nothing people did helped the snakes’ cause (which, like ours, is to stay alive as long as they can). Now they benefit from legal protection, from people like my friend, and from people who know how to keep a secret.
Further reading on the status of Timber Rattlers: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/64318/0