Tips for living in rattlesnake country

    Most of us have seen pictures of rattlesnakes more often than we've encountered them in the wild. In some parts of Western United States, however, those encounters are on the rise.

    The recent wet winter throughout the West Coast is the reason officials at the California Poison Control Center believe the rattlesnake population in that state is up this year.

    From April to June, that agency reported 184 rattlesnake bites, an increase of more than 48 percent over the same time last year.

    While similar statistics are not available for the Rogue Valley, the local climate and abundant habitat have led to plenty of snake-human encounters.

    "They like hot, rocky areas with a nearby water supply," says Scott Evans, owner of A1 Critter Solutions.

    While Evans hasn't formed an opinion yet about the current year's local rattler population, he believes we're experiencing an upward trend.

    "We saw a dramatic increase in rattler population last year in places we've never seen them before," Evans says. "Snakes will often move to new areas because of competition from other snakes."

    Rattlesnakes are considered pit vipers, snakes that kill their prey by injecting them with poison. Other pit vipers include copperheads and water moccasins. If you see a rattler in Southern Oregon, it's almost certainly a Western Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridus.

    The easiest way to identify this species is by its diamond-shaped head with two light, diagonal stripes on the side of its face. The color ranges from gray to green to salmon to black. Its body sports circular or hexagonal splotches. Don't forget the fangs, and the rattles on the adults.

    Like other cold-blooded reptiles, rattlesnakes get energy by warming themselves in direct sunlight. Their most common prey are small rodents and birds.

    Occasionally they go after something larger.

    "I came home one day and saw a ground squirrel writhing in pain from a nasty neck wound," says Mike Derrig, who lives in the rocky oak woodlands on the east side of Interstate 5 near Ashland. "I looked at it through my kitchen window a few minutes later and a rattlesnake had swallowed all of it except for its bushy tail."

    The rattle in the rattlesnake is made of interlocking segments of keratin — the same substance found in our fingernails and hair. When muscles in the snake's tail contract, these segments rub against each other and make a rattling sound. The rattle is used as a warning to scare potential predators, such as humans.

    Each time a snake sheds its skin, one more keratin "rattle" is formed. Before it sheds its first skin, a baby snake has no rattle, making it more of a silent danger. Young snakes also are more likely to empty all their venom in a single bite, as they haven't yet learned to conserve their venom for their next meal.

    This makes them doubly dangerous.

    If you get bitten, stay calm and call 911. Sitting still will slow the spread of the venom. Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal if medical aid is obtained quickly: between 1960 and 1990, 12 fatalities occurred each year in the entire United States from the bites of all types of snakes, according to the journal American Family Physician.

    While waiting for medical help, the federal Centers for Disease Control advises, make sure the bite area is kept below the heart and cover the wound with a clean dressing.

    During the last century, a variety of snakebite treatments have gone in and out of fashion. These include slashing the wound with a knife and sucking out the venom, icing the bitten area, applying a tourniquet. Do not try any of these!

    While humans know that being bitten by a rattlesnake is dangerous, dogs don't always understand the danger. During a walk in the woods beyond the sight of its owner, a curious dog may get too close to a rattler and get bitten.

    "If your dog is bitten, seek veterinary care immediately," says veterinarian Tami Rogers of the Jacksonville Veterinary Clinic.

    If you live in rattler country or often take your dog into areas frequented by rattlers, an annual canine rattlesnake vaccination might be a good idea.

    "What the vaccination does is decrease the amount or need for anti-venom," says Rogers.

    No vaccination is 100-percent effective, says Rogers, but receiving a vaccination may make the difference between a mild sickness and a fatality.

    Although rattlers are part of our Southern Oregon ecosystem, it's a good idea to remove them from around the house. Better yet, have an expert remove them.

    "We've found them under decks and steps, around foundations," says rattler rustler Scott Evans. "Also by creeks with tall grass nearby."

    It's not always the habitat that draws snakes, it's the food supply. Tall grass, brush and junk piles can all serve as home for rodents. Get rid of these, you reduce the snake's food supply.

    When Evans removes a rattler, he wears protective boots and clothing and picks the snake up with a grabber on the end of a six-foot pole. While it's dangerous to attempt to move a rattler, says Evans, "you cannot legally move it to another property unless you're a state-licensed wildlife control operator."

    Farmers with fields on south-facing slopes are known to have run-ins with rattlers, especially large ones, which can present hazards to workers.

    Ralph Gysin has seen several rattlers over five feet in length on his farm in the foothills of East Medford.

    "Most of the time they're right above the irrigation canal," says Gysin. "But I never see them in the same place."

    One snake in particular, 68 inches long, stands out for Gysin. It's now stuffed and adorns a wall in his house.

    Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at

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