The Rattlesnake Den

Young Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, photo courtesy of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

I had just refilled the humingbird feeder and was sitting down on my garden bench for a visit with my friends, the Anna’s Hummingbirds, when the outdoor washing machine finished.  I got up and went to the clothesline to remove the already dry laundry before hanging the wet things. What a wonderful breeze today, I reflected as I folded clothes and brought them inside the mud room.  I glanced in there as I piled clothes on the table.. but what was on the floor?  I looked again.  And there he was: Mr. Rattler, stretched out full length (8ft) on my cool Mexican pavers!  Yikes! What to do?  How did he get in there? Anna, you could have told me!  Rattler’s face was looking right at me.  His head elevated slightly off the floor.  It was as if he was headed back out the door, the way he had come in when I noticed him and he noticed me.  My Old Dog was just outside on the door mat.  Knowing how slow Old Dog moves and that Rattler can do 40 mph, I did what came to mind: I shut the door.  Then I proceeded to put Old Dog safely in the house via another entrance.

My honey was called to action. He opened the interior door, broom in hand, to shoo Rattler away, only to result in Rattler coiling up and rattling furiously! Rattlesnake Sounds via fws.gov Okay, not a good result.  So I suggested we leave him alone so he could go outside when he was ready, back to his Condo in the Living Stone Wall!

 

Old Stone Wall, Rattlesnake Den, Critter Condos in Topanga, CA, photo by KathyVilim

Now, about the Stone Wall Condos, in this particular old wall I have witnessed the comings and goings of various tenants:  from Squirrels to Mice to Rattlesnakes, and of course the Lizards.  Each seems to go about his own life, with his own objectives, not bothering the other. Clearly, they have something worked out for the months when it is too chilly or wet to be quite comfortable out of doors.  I have seen Squirrel busy preparing his nest with bits of cloth from laundry or newspaper he could find, while Rattler lies curled up outside his/her Condo entrance drinking in the sun.

 

Living Stone Wall Condos, The Rattlesnake Den, Topanga, CA Photo by Kathy Vilim

Rattlers use stone outcroppings like the old Condo wall as Rattlesnake Dens, which they return to each year.  They come out of hibernation in April, shed a layer of skin and warm themselves up in the sun.  Mother Rattlers usually have a litter of 9-10 snakes at a time. (Rattlers are born by live birth, not hatching eggs.)  I wondered if all the Rattlers would be sharing the Condo.  Then I learned that baby Rattlers are very independent.  They only stay with their mom for 7-10 days, then shrug off their baby skin and move off in search of their own territory! Mom gets to keep the Condo!  The babies have no rattles yet, but are born with highly poisonous venom.  They can’t warn you that they are about to attack, so they are definitely something to watch out for.  Gardeners Note: Young Rattlers are curious and will come out to see what you are doing if you are watering.

 

In So Cal, Rattlers are native members of the Chaparral community. There are some areas of State Park that are Rattlesnake protected zones and are so marked.  There are 7 different species of Rattlesnake in Southern California alone incl: Western Diamondback, Sidewinder, Speckled rattlesnake, Red Diamond rattlesnake, Southern Pacific, Great Basin rattlesnake and the Mojave rattlesnake. Their main role in the ecosystem seems to be keeping the rodent population down. (They in turn are food for other predators such as the King Snake and the Hawk.) Rattlers will eat mice, small birds & eggs, gophers and lizards.  They cannot eat animals any larger than their bodies are wide.  (Perhaps that is why Squirrel can live in the Condo next door.) After a big meal, Rattler will go off to a shady place to digest.

 

Tall Grass of High Cold Creek Trail, Photo by venturacountytrails.org

Here’s a bit of what to know about Rattlers:  Rattlers leave you alone unless provoked.  They prefer to avoid YOU.  Be sure they know YOU are there, by walking with a heavy gait or with a walking stick.  When walking in the tall grass, wear boots that cover your ankles.

Iceplant, Carpobrotus edulis, Topanga, CA Photo by Kathy Vilim

Gardeners note: Rattlers like to travel between the thick strands of iceplant (Carpobrotus edulis) which are not native despite the fact they are everywhere.  So it is important to watch the groundcover in months like May, when Rattlers begin to emerge and gather warmth.

Next, if you hear a sound like water running, when there is no water, look for a snake.

 

Where is your dog?  More dogs get taken to the vet for snake bites than people and the rattlesnake anti-venom “ain’t cheap”.  In So Cal we have “Rattlesnake Avoidance Schoolsto help train your pup how to react to a rattlesnake presence.

And finally, the best way to keep Rattler out of your mud room is to close the screen door!  I knew this, but my door was out being rescreened, and I’d carelessly left the inner door open.

 

Anna, oh Anna, I feed you so well, couldn’t you at least have warned me about Rattler?  “Click, click, whir.. we were busy”.. is the response I get from my fine hummingbird friends. Figures.

Topanga is a Special Place~

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Comments

  1. says

    Terrific blog post, great writing. What amazing reptiles to have around. My friends here get exceedingly venomous eastern brown snakes in the chicken coup, same thing, always having to keep an eye out for them. All the best from Toowoomba, Australia.

    • says

      Thanks so much. Glad you enjoyed. Yes, I imagine in Australia you have your share of snakes to learn about & watch out for. Just enjoyed your post w/photos of the Pobblebonk toad. Handsome!

  2. Judith Fine-Sarchielli says

    kathy,
    I live in Topanga too and had a few rattlesnake encounters. The first time, I thought I heard running water. When I looked down, close to the stairs I was standing on as I was going in the front door, there was a HUGE, coiled snake! I was terrified and ran in the door and called my neighbor. I am ashamed to say, she killed it.

    What would you have done in this case? My path to escape was blocked.

    Thanks for the fascinating info.

    Judith

    • says

      Unfortunately, many people kill rattlers rather than trying another solution. I have found it possible to get them to “move along” by shooing them with a broom or a metal rake. You can also make a lot of thumping noise. They don’t like it but they get the idea. When we move to the Chaparral, like the SM Mtns, we move to their world. And unfortunately they like shady places like the side of your house.
      (I have heard that 10 mins of Barry Manilow at full volume is also effective.)
      Kathy Vilim recently posted..Anna’s Hummingbirds, the Hummingbirds of Winter

  3. says

    We have a rare species of rattler in my area of NY actually somewhere across the street. We have never seen them but it is good to know what to look and listen for…I have a friend in the SW who had a rattler in her garage and she used loud music which helped move the snake along…there is no reason to kill them. Great post!
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-April

    • says

      Thanks, Donna. Yes, it’s interesting to learn that rattlers live in most of the US, not just out here in the SoWest. Snakes are sensitive to vibrations, so it would make sense that loud music might repel them. And definitely no reason to kill them.. if all those critters can get along in the Stone Wall Condo (Squirrel, Mouse, Lizard & Snake), we should be able to get along, too.
      Kathy Vilim recently posted..Milkweed for the Love of Monarchs

  4. says

    What a story! Thanks for the pics and the audio. I’ve never thought about finding rattlesnakes in the ice plant-covered dunes, so I’ll be more watchful. I am grateful for your attention to and awareness that we are invading their territory when we move to their habitat, and your willingness–nee, interest, in cohabiting, rather than attempting to eradicate.

    • says

      I’m glad you enjoyed the story, Kathryn. It is always a surprise to see a long Rattler in your house! But once you think about it, it’s not like he came to hurt me. Why should I want to hurt him? And I am happy knowing he’s (she’s?) safely returned to the Condo Wall. I know now to be more vigilant with the screen door, and he was a handsome creature, after all. Yes, do watch for them in the iceplant. Great disguise, as they can (and do) snake their way between the strands.
      Kathy Vilim recently posted..Monticello Says Goodbye to its Long Time Gardener

  5. says

    What a beautiful post, and a testament to peaceful coexistence. I didn’t realize rattlers liked the ice plant thoroughfares. I’ll note that next time I’m near an ice plant field back in my home turf of No Cal, although in parks, I do stay on trails. I’ve seen rattlesnakes in the wild, but never in a situation like a laundry room. I love snakes, but having next to zero venomous snake handling experience, I think I’d have to opt for the “please leave on your own, dude” option. :)
    ingrid recently posted..The Benefits of Anthropomorphism

    • says

      That’s a great name for the option “please leave on your own, dude”! Yep, I once had a place with a hot tub on the hillside. The Hill was planted with iceplant & coyote brush. The rattlers loved to weave their way between the strands.. not so good when you have bare feet! Happy you enjoyed the story.
      Kathy Vilim recently posted..Stand Up and Be Counted

  6. says

    I have to say, living as I do now in an area with four species of venomous snake, I miss the rattlers! They’re so polite. You don’t want to step on them, they don’t want you to step on them, everybody has the same goal in mind. I appreciate that in a snake. (In all fairness, every encounter I’ve had with a venomous snake locally has involved them being very shy and trying to leave the area immediately—even the supposedly hyper-aggressive cottonmouths that everybody claims will chase you down and take your wallet—but still! You miss the clear warning!)

    And I’d certainly far rather be bit by a rattler than one of our local coral snakes!
    UrsulaV recently posted..Stop Me Before I Plant Again

    • Jerry Turner says

      One of the great untruths about water moccasins is that they are aggressive.

      I’ve studied them and caught them for teaching purposes, and have never had one try to attack me.

      They first try to escape, and if pushed, will coil up and open their mouth as a threat. But they never attack.

      This is backed up by studies by such noted herpetologists as Dr. Bruce Means, ecologist from Tallahassee, Florida

  7. says

    Super article Kathy and great advice! I’m happy my rattler encounters have been with the pygmy rattler which is 12-18 inches. Not sure how I would react to an 8 ft. (oh diamond backs, please live elsewhere)

    Love “old dog”. I have medium aged dogs…setters….both of whom have been bitten by pygmy rattlers. Think I need to send them out to you for a trip to that rattlesnake avoidance school….of course they failed obedience school (j/k), so I wouldn’t hold out hope! I’m also greatful to my vet….old school rural type doctor. He performs some magic that doesn’t include antivenom shots….keeping the costs low. Of course that’s with a pygmy which is wayyyyyy different from that beauty you encountered. LOVE THAT WALL!
    Loret T. Setters recently posted..Do Birds Mourn?

  8. says

    Thanks much, Loret! I’ve never heard of a pygmy rattler.. sounds a more manageable size for sure. I love my “old dog”.. so mellow.. I think the Rattler could slither past w/o his notice, but ya never know. I am glad you love my wall! You are the first person to comment on it. It has been there since at least 1920s and must have seen many critter residents in all that time!
    Kathy Vilim recently posted..Anna’s Hummingbirds, the Hummingbirds of Winter

  9. Tambra Tempulgate says

    What a great story Kathy! So much I didn’t know about these cool reptiles. Your Living Stone Wall sounds like a very special place to find a home a settle down. I really enjoy your whimsical style
    of writing; such a pleasure to read…your garden with all of it’s inhabitants and your hummingbirds all around, definitely a special place for a special person…

  10. Allen says

    Not to down your page or anything, but in fact young rattlers do return to the den they were born in quite often, and some older dens are known to house well over 100 rattlers. If there is a true den near where you are seeing squirrels regularly, you are likely to see more snakes and fewer squirrels in coming years, as the snakes will undoubtedly invade the squirrel nests to eat the young while they are small enough to swallow whole.

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