Rattlesnakes in the Mountains

By Amy Renfranz (dearnaturalist@gmail.com)

Article Published: Oct. 4, 2012 | Modified: Oct. 4, 2012
Rattlesnakes in the Mountains

Rattlesnakes live in every coastal and mountain county in the state. Only the Piedmont is without them, due to the high quantities of people, agriculture and development.

Photo submitted

“The only good snake is a dead snake.”

You, the reader, might agree with this opinion. I have certainly heard it expressed many times.
As the years have gone by, this philosophy has evolved to fit almost any predator that scares us. Think: “The only good wolf is a dead wolf.” “The only good mountain lion is a dead mountain lion.” “The only good bear is a dead bear.”

Well, I would say that we have done a pretty good job at carrying out this philosophy. Habitat range for most large predators has been drastically reduced since the first Europeans settled in America. Wolves and mountain lions, once present in our mountains, currently only exist in the imaginations of a few locals (you know who you are, and I am still waiting to see the photographic evidence).

I can imagine that you are now probably rolling your eyes, dear reader. Who would ever want to live in a world with wolves? Think of the children.

Please hear me out, kind reader. I do believe that there is the possibility that humans can be happy without tramping on the rights (or heads) of other beings. I think that we are capable of respecting others’ individualities. I know that we can live in harmony with Earth’s creatures.

How do I know? Because of the children. We are not born hating spiders, snakes, or bears. That behavior was taught to us. And I think if we learn more than to fear a mysterious creature, respect might follow.

The question of the week came in from a hiker wanting to know more about rattlesnakes, which could possibly be the most misunderstood creatures of the woods.

"A few weeks ago my son-in-law and grandchildren hiked up Elk Knob and saw a rattlesnake on a rock right on the edge of the trail near the very top. I had no idea they could be found that high up. Are they really more prevalent than I thought? Are they aggressive? Do they stay in the same area or have a wide territory? — Hutch, Tater Hill"

Rattlesnakes live in every coastal and mountain county in the state. Only the Piedmont is without them, and that is due to the high quantities of people, agriculture and development there.
The reason you have not seen them before, Hutch, is that they live very private lives. Experts refer to the rattlesnake as being “shy” and “docile.”

This, in turn, is the reason why they are the snake du jour of snake-handling churches. Though, as you know, that kind of handling (or any handling) does not always have the desired ending.

They are extremely well-camouflaged in the forest and prefer rocky places. On cool days, they will warm themselves in the sun. They will hunt at night. Chipmunks, squirrels and voles make the menu.

Every three years, a mature female (and she has to be at least 7 years old) will give birth to live young in the fall. Then, the rattlesnakes will hibernate in a winter den. A winter den may be filled with hundreds of rattlesnakes, and they will return to the same site year after year.

After hibernation, these independent snakes disperse. A male rattler needs about 500 acres to roam, although females and juveniles will stick closer to the den site.

Are they aggressive? I would say that they are defensive, but have never been known to pursue or chase people. Most bites, and they are venomous, occur when a human is trying to handle or kill a snake.

A few words of wisdom: Some people think they are doing good by relocating “wayward” snakes. However, most snakes (and turtles for that matter) will die if they are relocated to a place outside their normal range.

It is best to simply watch your footing and handholds while outside. If you do observe a rattlesnake, give it room and it will not bother you.

For more information on this fascinating creature, please visit http://www.herpsofnc.org.

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (dearnaturalist@gmail.com) All of your questions will be answered. Two will be featured next week.

See you on the trails.

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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