As the warm weather returns, humans are not the only species coming out to enjoy the sun. Snakes, too, can be found basking in the sun’s rays. Although most snakes in the state are harmless, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) reminds the public to steer clear of the venomous rattlesnake and know what to do if one strikes.
All of California, from the marshlands to the mountains, is snake country. You don’t even have to be in the great outdoors to discover a snake. They can be found in your garden and sometimes even your garage, but there is no need to panic. Snakes play an important role in the ecosystem, including keeping the rodent population under control. Rattlesnakes are generally not aggressive and usually strike only when threatened or deliberately provoked. Given room, they will retreat. Most snake bites occur when a rattlesnake is handled or accidentally touched by someone walking or climbing. The majority of snakebites occur on the hands, feet and ankles.
On rare occasions, rattlesnakes can cause serious injury to humans. The California Poison Control Center notes that rattlesnakes account for more than 800 bites each year in the U.S. with one to two deaths. Most bites occur between the months of April and October when snakes and humans are most active outdoors. The potential of running into a rattlesnake should not deter anyone from venturing outdoors, but there are precautions that can be taken to lessen the chance of being bitten.
Is it a rattlesnake?
Anyone who ventures outdoors this time of year should know how to identify California’s only native venomous snake – the rattlesnake. There are several species including the northern Pacific rattlesnake (in northern California), and the western diamondback, sidewinder, speckled rattlesnake, red diamond rattlesnake, southern Pacific rattlesnake, Great Basin rattlesnake and the Mojave rattlesnake (all found in Southern California).
A rattlesnake is a heavy-bodied, blunt-tailed snake with one or more rattles on the tail. It has a triangular-shaped head, much broader at the back than at the front, and a distinct “neck” region. The rattlesnake also has openings between the nostrils and eyes, which is a heat-sensing pit. The eyes are hooded with elliptical pupils. Rattlesnakes have a series of dark and light bands near the tail, just before the rattles which are different from the markings on the rest of the body. Rattles may not always be present, as they are often lost through breakage and are not always developed on the young.
The dos and don’ts in snake country
Rattlesnakes are not confined to rural areas. They have been found in urban areas, on riverbanks and lakeside parks and at golf courses. Startled rattlesnakes may not rattle before striking defensively. DFG recommends the following safety precautions be followed to reduce the likelihood of startling a rattlesnake:
• Wear hiking boots and loose-fitting long pants.
• Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through wild areas.
• When hiking, stick to well-used trails.
• Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.
• Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see, and avoid wandering around in the dark.
• Step ON logs and rocks, never over them, and be especially careful when climbing rocks or gathering firewood.
• Check out stumps or logs before sitting down, and shake out sleeping bags before use.
• Never grab “sticks” or “branches” while swimming in lakes and rivers. Rattlesnakes can swim.
• Be careful when stepping over doorsteps as well. Snakes like to crawl along the edge of buildings where they are protected on one side.
• Never hike alone. Always have someone with you who can assist in an emergency.
• Do not handle a freshly killed snake, as it can still inject venom.
• Teach children early to respect snakes and to leave them alone.
Keeping snakes out of the yard
The best protection against rattlesnakes in the yard is a “rattlesnake proof” fence. The fence should either be solid or with mesh no larger than one-quarter inch. It should be at least three feet high with the bottom buried a few inches in the ground. Slanting your snake fence outward about a 30-degree angle will help. Keep vegetation away from the fence and remove piles of boards or rocks around the home. Use caution when removing those piles – there may already be a snake there. Encourage and protect natural competitors like gopher snakes, kingsnakes and racers. Kingsnakes actually kill and eat rattlesnakes.
What to do in the event of a snake bite:
Though uncommon, rattlesnake bites do occur, so have a plan in place for responding to any situation. Carry a cell phone, hike with a companion who can assist in an emergency, and make sure that family or friends know where you are going and when you will be checking in.
• Stay calm.
• Wash the bite area gently with soap and water.
• Remove watches, rings, etc, which may constrict swelling.
• Immobilize the affected area.
• Transport safely to the nearest medical facility.
For more first aid information please visit California Poison Control at www.calpoison.com.
What you should NOT do after a rattlesnake bite:
• DON’T apply a tourniquet.
• DON’T pack the bite area in ice.
• DON’T cut the wound with a knife or razor.
• DON’T use your mouth to suck out the venom.
• DON’T let the victim drink alcohol.
More information about rattlesnakes can be found at the following websites:
Photos and natural history:
UC Davis Integrative Pest Management: www.californiaherps.com/info/rattlesnakeinfo.html