Mr. Grumpy Rears His Ugly Head – Again

A pacific rattlesnake in its natural environment in Siskiyou County, CA. Photo by William E. Simpson.

by Capt. William E. Simpson II

It’s that time of year when Mr. Grump the rattlesnake rears his ugly head. It’s also the time of year when people (and dogs) begin venturing-out and spending a lot more time engaged in recreation around the traditional rattlesnake habitats. Fishermen, hunters, hikers, surveyors, firefighters, ranchers and others who start spending more time in rural areas will be seeing the emergence of numerous reptiles and snakes. Fortunately in northern California and Oregon, there is only one naturally occurring venomous snake that people need to be aware of and avoid in the outdoors; the Pacific Rattlesnake. And this snake is fairly easy to identify (from a safe distance of 6 feet or more) by its remarkable head and tail.

It’s not long after the weather warms up that we start seeing all sorts of reptiles beginning to show themselves as they venture out in search of a much-needed meal after a long winter in hibernation, and one fellow in particular can be a problem for people and pets; Mr. Grumpy the rattlesnake.

Over the last two weeks we have already seen a few days reach 80 degrees in northern California and I have already seen many snakes out on the prowl for their first meals of the year. So far, the majority of snakes I have seen are harmless. As I have said, here in the northern part of California and Southern Oregon, we have only one snake that is of concern; the pacific rattlesnake.

The pacific rattlesnake (scientific name: Crotalus oreganus) is a venomous pit viper commonly found in the western United States. It is a ‘pit viper’, meaning that it has a small depression (or pit) on either side of its nostrils and these pits are highly sensitive to the infrared heat signature of warm blooded animals. And the separation (space) between the pits allows for very accurate directional sensing of the heat signature of any animal that is within range of these sensory pits and therefore, potentially within striking range of the snake.

All rattlesnakes are pit vipers and have these specialized heat sensing pits, which allow them to target prey, even in absolute darkness. Of course given that rodents are largely nocturnal, and are the primary prey of rattlesnakes, this special sensory adaptation is certainly a function of the evolution of this snake to deal with its predominately nocturnal prey (mice, rats, etc.).

Normally, all snakes, including rattlesnakes prefer to avoid dealing with non-prey threats, such as people and their dogs and will flee to the nearest best hiding place. However, when they are trapped or cornered, they often give warning by the distinctive rattling sound they make using the rattles on their tail. Venom is a precious commodity for a rattlesnake since it requires time and nourishment to produce and is critical to their own survival. Rattlesnakes require venom to subdue their normal prey (small rodents, rats) so they can track and then swallow the prey after it succumbs to the venom upon being bitten. Other snakes, like the gopher snake have a different strategy and will grab a rodent with its mouth and then constrict around the rodent suffocating it before swallowing it. Without venom, a rattlesnake would die, so it prefers to use venom for obtaining food. This is the reason that some defensive rattlesnake bites don’t inject a lot of venom, as would be the case for prey. But of course there is no way for non-medical professionals to determine the amount of envenomation that has occurred as the result of any particular bite. Therefore, it is important to treat all bites as being extremely serious.

Author William E. Simpson encountered the rattlesnake in the photo above on May 14, 2017 at an elevation of 3,500 feet on the wooded/grassy slope of a mountain near a fallen oak tree. The rattlesnake in the photo above is about to shed its skin, which is evidenced by the clouded (whitish colored) eyes and the dull skin color. When a snake has recently shed its skin, it will have vibrant colors. Note the distinctive thick and wide triangular shaped head of the rattlesnake and the ‘pits’ on either side of the tip of its nose. These along with the rattles on its tail are the hallmarks of this dangerous viper.

It’s important to know how to treat a rattlesnake bite should such an event occur. Dogs are bitten more often than humans and due to their smaller body mass are more vulnerable to the venom.  Dog (pet) owners may want to speak to their veterinarian about the latest methods (vaccines) for protecting dogs (and other pets that venture outside). More about protecting your pets here:

Do not panic if you or someone else is bitten; very few people die from envenomation by a pacific rattlesnake. Remain calm, get a doctor’s advice (some patients taking certain drug therapies may require special attention) and get the victim to the nearest hospital as soon as possible. Do not cut or suck-out venom using your mouth or any device. Cover the bite with a clean loose bandage and to the extent possible, immobilize the site of the bite. Keep the victim as calm and relaxed as possible and avoid any physical exertion if at all possible.

If the bite occurs when hiking and communications with emergency services is possible, it may be best to have emergency services come to the victim (defer to their advice), as opposed to having the victim walking. Make certain that the victim is properly hydrated and kept as cool as possible while waiting for help to arrive, or while traveling to the hospital. Do not place ice directly on the bite; a clean damp cloth that has been cooled by ice water can be applied to the area nearby the bite to help slow circulation of the venom. Do not use any tourniquet. The key is to seek professional medical help as soon as possible and access to the appropriate anti-venom.

Many people mistake the harmless and highly beneficial gopher snake (seen in the photo above) or bull snake (virtually looks the same) for a rattlesnake. But upon closer examination from a safe distance of six-feet or more, the differences between these snakes is remarkable. Snakes can strike a distance up to 50% of their body length; so a very large six-foot snake can strike up to three-feet. The head of the gopher (or bull snake) snake is markedly different than a rattlesnake (no pits, comparatively slender, and no rattles on the tail). The author (pictured above) removed the mature gopher snake in this photo from a county road (with traffic) and released him into the wilderness.

NOTE: Never attempt to handle (remove them from a roadway) any snake unless you can positively identify the species and have been instructed in safely handling reptiles! In rural areas it’s best to leave all snakes where you find them unharmed and undisturbed since they are critical to rodent control.

More on venomous and non-venomous snakes here:

The author is not a medical professional and hereby advises all readers to always seek and follow professional medical advice in the event of any/all medical emergencies.

William Simpson is the author of Dark Stallions – Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary.

Capt. William E. Simpson II is a U.S. Merchant Marine Officer with decades of boating and expedition sailing experience, having logged more than 150,000 miles at sea. Simpson has successfully survived long-term ‘off the grid’ at sea and at remote uninhabited desert islands with his family for years at a time. He holds a U.S.C.G. 500-ton captain’s license for commercial-inspected passenger vessels and he is also a commercial airplane and helicopter pilot.

Simpson spent his formative years growing up on the family’s working ranch in the mountains of Southern Oregon, where horses were an integral part of the daily life. William left the family ranch to attend college, which turned out to be a stepping stone into a bizarre lifestyle that led him around the world on an entrepreneurial quest. An adventurer at heart, Simpson and his best friend and wife Laura, spent many years at sea during two sailing expeditions (1991-1994 and 2008-2011) where they experienced some of the many wonders and mysteries of nature. Since retiring, Bill and Laura have changed lifestyles and are once again engaged in a new adventure; living an off-grid lifestyle in the remote wilderness of the Siskiyou Mountains, where they enjoy coexisting with herds of wild horses, along with a myriad of other wild animals. The staggering beauty of the local mountains and valleys is awe inspiring and has influenced Bill to frequently write on subjects related to wild horses as well as wild and domestic horse advocacy, rescue and sanctuary.