Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Timber Rattlesnake, CROTALUS HORRIDUS

from the June 30, 2008 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi:

Friday morning Karen let out her whoop yet again and this time it was a young, 2.5-ft-long Timber Rattlesnake, CROTALUS HORRIDUS, calmly stretched out in the middle of her parking area, shown above.

"Get the dogs up," was her first thought. Then I coaxed the snake into a cooler and we carried it to an unpopulated forest area up the road. The Audubon field guide says that the species remains motionless when approached, and that's exactly what happened with this one. He never struck, never shook his rattles, and always moved slowly and deliberately.

Timber Rattlesnakes are distributed throughout most of the eastern US's forest area but the species hasn't fractured into as many definable subspecies as the Racer has. Still, two intergrading forms are recognized, a northern and a southern one, based on color variations. In the old days populations around here were separated out as Canebrake Rattlesnakes, but now that variation is just lumped into the southern variation.

from the September 2, 2001 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi:

Once again on my morning journey to Laurel Hill's gardens I have met with a poisonous snake coiled in the dirt road's rut-water. This time, however, I missed running over the snake by a few inches, and it was not a Cottonmouth. It was a young Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, and therein lies a story.

In Kentucky as a youngster roaming the hills and swamps around our farm I learned with precision the habitats of poisonous snakes. Cottonmouths were in swamps and rattlesnakes and copperheads were in rocky areas and around old homesteads on hillsides. I got so I could anticipate exactly where these species would appear, and when I was in non-snaky habitat I didn't bother much watching out for them.

On my first visit to Laurel Hill back in the late 70's one day I slipped out to the swamp's edge to take a pee. Being snake savvy, every step I took I checked closely for thick, black cottonmouths, because cottonmouths were swamp species. Seeing none, I set about peeing in confidence and instantly noticed that the spot on which I was peeing was moving about. I was dousing a very well camouflaged copperhead snake.

In this way I learned that copperheads are separated into two subspecies, the Northern Copperhead and the Southern Copperhead, and that much in contrast to the hillslope-loving northern subspecies I'd grown up with, the southern subspecies is a swamp-lover,

Well, this week I have learned that a similar situation exists with Timber Rattlesnakes. Southern Mississippi's Timber Rattlesnakes can be swamp snakes while their Kentucky counterparts stick to dry, rocky woods. In fact, until fairly recently southern Mississippi's Timber Rattlers were considered to be a distinct subspecies called the Canebrake Rattlesnake. However, snake specialists have decided that there's not enough difference between the northern and southern forms to keep them apart, so, at least officially, there's no such thing as a Canebrake Rattler -- they're all Timber Rattlers.

Anyway, my Timber Rattlesnake this week was a young one without a single button on its tail. However he did something special with that tail, which was conspicuously black in contrast to the boldly patterned body: He stuck the black tail straight up out of the water for about 3 inches. I just wonder what this accomplished for him? I wonder if it was used to hold a frog's attention as the camouflaged front end sneaked up on the frog from the side?

from the May 12, 2002 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi:

Monday morning once again I almost biked over a Timber Rattlesnake, CROTALUS HORRIDUS, stretched across my path. I never report the vast majority of snakes I see but this one deserves special mention because it was a big one. It was 4-1/2 feet long (1.4m), the largest rattler I've seen here (Lots of racers and others exceed that, but this is big for a rattler). If I had been one of these fellows who stands next to his pickup truck holding a battered snake by his neck as it stretches from gravity and the photographer for the County News snaps a picture, it would have easily measured 6 feet.

But, this was a creature to admire. The smaller rattlers I've come across were of a different caliber, a different mood. This big fellow just lay there looking at me, not shaking his rattles (ten buttons) at all. He almost seemed to smile in a lazy way.

He was wonderfully camouflaged against the brown leaf-litter on which he rested. I wouldn't have spotted him if his tail hadn't been velvety black. A dark stripe ran from behind each eye downward over his jaw, like a racing stripe on a head that was so coppery it glowed in the dim forest light. Pronounced raised "eyebrow" ridges gave him the appearance of staring with unshakable concentration at me. If the wildest, most self-possessed Viking should be transmogrified into a snake, this would be that snake.

Timber rattlers roam during the day during mild weather, but once it gets really hot they tend to be nocturnal. For this reason when I jog in dawn's dim light, now I am paying special attention to where I step. The first morning after meeting this snake, exactly where earlier he had lain, as my foot was coming down, a toad managed to jump away right in time. You can imagine.