-by Nira Clark

Nira Clark, our resident Deerhorn biologist, answers questions and provides some facts and advice. Nira teaches biology at Southwestern College and specializes in snakes and reptiles. Thank you so much, Nira, for this information and heads' up. - Kim & Rob

Spring is in the air! The birds are singing and the flowers blooming... everyone in nature is out looking for that special someone...including the snakes. Yes snakes. As temperatures warm up the snakes start looking around for food and a friend to raise a family with. Rattlers are common in our area and best to keep your eyes open for them. Now remember we like snakes. So don't go get your shovels or machetes out yet. Without snakes you would be up to your eyeballs in ground squirrels and gophers. And if you are up to your eyeballs in these varmints, you might want to reconsider your perspective on those wonderful reptiles. First things first.


1. How Dangerous Are Rattlesnakes?

On a scale of 1-10 I would put them at about a 3. Most encounters with a rattle snakes are more dangerous to the snake than to you, unless you start playing with it. Not watching where you are putting your hands during a rock climb or daydreaming while gathering wood from that wood pile are the most likely times you will get bit by a snake. Weed removal (weed whackers etc.) you might see some, but with loud equipment the snakes often move away before you get to them. Watch and educate your kids, they have more unbound enthusiasm for getting into places where snakes might try to hide. Snakes do sun themselves on rocks or dirt paths so hikers and horseback riders do see them while out and about. And many of us have stories of finding one on our back porch... so they are there. But they come equipped with a rattle at the end of their tail that will warn you most of the time. If you do get bit, it is a trip to the emergency room. But please try not to panic. No one will die. Do not cut the bite area, do not try to suck out the venom, do not put ice on it. Try to stay calm, grab your wallet and go immediately to the hospital. If you are not calm or far away from a hospital (2+ hours), call 911. But it will be OK. All the rattlesnakes in our area have the same type of venom, so it is not necessary to cut off the snake’s head to bring with you to the ER. If we lived in the Mojave desert it would be different, but we don’t… so just go to the doctor. The venom will start to digest the muscles near the bite area. So, if you want to keep all your fingers, don’t try to tough it out.


2. What if my dog is bitten?

It is the same advice for you. Except go to a vet. These are the symptoms:

1) Sudden significant swelling in the area of the bite

2) Significant pain at the site of the bite

3) A trickle of blood from the bite wound

4) Bruising in the area of the bite

5) Keep your pet calm, restrict their movements.

6) Splint the extremity and if possible keep the limb below heart level.

7) Carry the pet, do not let it walk.

8) DO NOT apply a tourniquet, DO NOT apply ice, DO NOT cut the bite area and apply suction.

9) Take your pet immediately to a veterinarian. Greater than 80% of most dogs survive, especially if treated right away. They respond best if treated within a few hours of the occurrence of the bite.

3. How DO I Deal With A Rattlesnake

You do want to remove rattlers away from where any people are living. They are too dangerous. As a biologist, I would like to recommend simply taking them for a ride down the hill to the nature preserve at Hollenbeck canyon (corner of Honey Springs and 94)... BUT if you are not trained in handling venomous snakes let alone transporting them... you probably should kill it. There I said it, and it breaks my biologist heart. But really the safety of humans must come first. But do not kill every snake you see!

Ed. Note: A flat blade shovel is an efficient rattlesnake disposal tool for severing the head from the body. The severed head is still venomous and capable of biting for some time, so discard it RESPONSIBLY so it will pose no threat to animals or people. Bury it deeply, or enclose it in a puncture-proof container before disposing. Do not even attempt to kill a rattler if it puts you or someone else at risk. If you feel trapped or threatened by the snake, call 911.

4. How do I know that snake is a rattler or not?

Remember snakes are good (just keep saying it). You want them in your yard. If you just can't get your mind around that, then at least consider the king snake your friend. It is the king of snakes...because it eats any other snakes smaller than it, including rattle snakes!

California King Snake: Friend & Ally

Kingsnake3 Kingsnake4

Kingsnake... an ally in controlling the rattler population

Kingsnakes can be black and yellow/white or brown and yellow/white. Markings are typically banded, but may be stripped.

Don't Mistake Gophersnakes for Rattlers...

Because everyone is afraid of rattlesnakes… some snakes will market that and act like rattlesnakes.

The harmless gopher snake, will puff up to look bigger, hiss menacingly, and wiggle the tip of it’s tail hopefully in some leaves to hopefully sound like a rattle snake. It is trying to mimic a rattlesnake, but it is not venomous, not harmful… and really otherwise a good snake to have around. He is clever but a good snake.

gophersnakehead gophersnake14

Gophersnakes are also very common in Deerhorn Valley. They are beneficial snakes and wonderful to have around to control the rodent populations.

Or the Little Lyre Snake...

You might run into a small snake called a lyre snake. These guys are little (typically 6-8 inches) and slightly bigger around than a pencil. I have found several in Deerhorn Valley. They are not rattlesnakes. They are rear fang venomous snakes (technically speaking). They are no threat to humans, unless you got one to bite you and then fell asleep for about 8 hours while it continued to bite you…. then you might get an infection. But they always scare me. They look just like a rattlesnake especially in the twilight and when I haven’t seen a rattlesnake in a very long time. They do have a triangular shaped head, but don’t act like a rattlesnake at all. They are pretty shy and try to get away from you.


Local species has slightly lighter markings, not so brown. The head coloration is otherwise typical.

Identifying A Rattler

For the most part, what is important to check for is a triangular-shaped head... and a rattle or starter button:


Rattlesnake2 Rattlesnake5

Rattlesnakes have a triangular head..... and a rattle or starter button


Young rattlers will often have just one button or a couple of small rattles. For the most part, these are the keys to identification

Triangular shaped head AND rattle = RATTLESNAKE

Rattle snakes also have keeled scales. Which makes their scales look rough versus the smooth scales of a king snake (below).

Rattlesnake6 Kingsnake7


Other Identifiers... But watch out

There are other identifications points, but if you are this close to the snake you are already in trouble and not reading this handout!


Rattlesnake8 Rattlesnake9

...Vertical pupil

And check out the pit organ under the nostril in the above picture and the following picture.




Three species of rattle snakes can be found in our area: (text taken without permission from the San Diego Natural History Museum web site… check it out!)


The Red Diamondback (Crotalus ruber)


The first warm days of February and March bring the Red Diamond Rattlesnakes out of their winter retreats, and onto southern slopes and rock outcrops to bask in the sun. As the weather warms, Red Diamonds become more active and search for food and mates. In desert environments and in hot weather, they are most active at dusk and at night.

Their diet consists of rodents, rabbits, and other small mammals, but can include birds.

A female Red Diamond Rattlesnake may produce from 3 to 20 young, which are born in the summer.

This particular rattlesnake is noted for its mellow disposition, but individuals vary. Some may not even rattle when encountered, while others may be quite nasty. This snake -- like all rattlesnakes -- should be treated with a healthy dose of caution and respect.


Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis)


In early spring, the Western Rattlesnake basks in the sun or glides around as it looks for food and mates. In dense chaparral, where little sun reaches the ground, it may climb to the tops of bushes to bask. As the weather warms, it becomes more active at dusk or at night. Local specimens are not typically this dark in color. Their diet includes small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. A female may bear 4 to 12 young in late summer.


Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)


The Western Diamondback is a stubborn snake and has a tendency to stand its ground. As with all rattlesnakes, this species is venomous. It ranks as one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. Bites are serious and potentially deadly if medical treatment is not reached immediately.

Rattlesnakes are principally nocturnal, but will be active in the daytime during the spring months when temperatures are cooler at night. This species is known to bask in the late afternoon sun.

Its diet consists of rabbits, mice, rats, gophers, sparrows, and ground squirrels.

4 to 25 live young, 8-12 inches long. The babies are born during late July or August.



If you want to discourage snakes from coming to close, get rid of the food source! Bird feeders attract mice… snakes eat mice. Fruit trees with lots of fruit on them (or under them) attract rats and squirrels… snakes eat rats and squirrels. Grain/oats/hay… attract mice… snakes eat mice. Keep all pet/bird food enclosed and free from rodents. Keep all wood piles (including fire wood) away from your house, and be careful gathering that wood during a cold spring day. Wood piles and rock piles are great places for snakes to hide.


Ok that’s it. I hope I helped. Remember don’t pick any snake up unless you are sure it isn’t a rattlesnake and don’t kill it unless you are sure it is (and it is near your house!). Let’s take care or the snakes out there! There are enough gophers and squirrels!

-Nira Clark

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