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Journal
Ambush
In springtime in the Northeast, timber rattlers emerge from their shared dens, dodging snake collectors before setting off to lie in wait for their own prey.

 

I have seen timber rattlesnakes before, mostly on sun-baked talus in western Vermont—dark, with vague markings, or mustard-colored and distinctly banded to merge with the forest floor—but never an incandescent yellow one in the Northeast. This snake stretches out in the morning light, basking on the stone foundation of a building preempted by trees in a forest outside Elmira, New York. Chocolate-colored bands stain the yellow areas and loop its body from head to vent; the tail is black as obsidian. And like most timber rattlesnakes I’ve seen, this one seems content. No rattling. No threatening coil. No retreat. Not so much as a glance in my direction. Lidless eyes focus on the all or the nothing of a central New York morning, golden spheres each slashed by a vertical black pupil—eyes of the night.

At 52 inches and just over three and a half pounds, Hank, as this guy is known, is big. Of all the rattlesnakes I’ve encountered in the Northeast, only Travis, Hank’s hillside neighbor, a black morph recumbent beneath the overhang of a bramble a quarter of a mile away, is bigger: 52 inches, four and a half pounds, and as thick as the barrel of a baseball bat.

I’m with Rulon Clark, a Utah native who recently completed his doctorate at Cornell University in nearby Ithaca with a dissertation on the communal habitats of timber rattlesnakes. As a child, Clark was attracted to non-fleeing predators and presented public feedings with his menagerie of reptiles and arthropods. “I had tolerant parents,” he recalls.

Radio-tracking enables Clark to eavesdrop on timber rattlesnakes during the four or five months when they’re away from the den and fanning out for miles across the countryside. Earthly pulses and species-specific biorhythms, formerly understood only by the snakes themselves, govern the reptiles. Using a remote-sensor video, Clark films rattlesnakes as they wait hours, or even days, to ambush the small mammals that are their principal food. He learns where they eat, when they eat, what they eat, and how they eat. And what they do between meals (lounge and digest). Clark’s work dispels myths, confirms scientific speculation, and sheds light on unknown aspects of their behavior. It also adds a sense of wonder to the woods and ledges of the Northeast.

 

Timber rattlesnakes are one of 32 species (and 83 currently recognized subspecies) of rattlesnakes, all restricted to the Western Hemisphere. As a group they are as American as apple pie or, stated more accurately, as Mexican as nachos. Rattlesnakes evolved two million to five million years ago on the plains of north-central Mexico. Fifteen species live in the United States, including 11 in Arizona, four in the East, and two in the Northeast. The northern timber rattlesnake is brown or gray to yellow or black; the front half is stippled in blotches that fuse to crossbands midway down the back. The head is unmarked. The southern form, called the canebrake (a reference to the low-lying wetlands where it often lives), is more colorful: yellowish, pinkish, or brownish with a reddish-brown back stripe that bisects the crossbands, and a dark stripe behind each eye. Both forms have velvet-black tails.

The timber rattler was the first snake encountered by Puritans and the first classified by Linnaeus, who, in 1758, named a Manhattan specimen Crotalus horridus, a reference to the animal’s “musical rattle” and “bristling” or “scaly texture” (not to its supposed temperament). The snake was written about far out of proportion to its usefulness. In 1612, describing clothing worn by Virginia Indians, Captain John Smith made the first reference to a rattlesnake in English: “Some on their heads weare the wing of a bird or some large feather, with a Rattel. Those Rattels are like the chape of a Rapier but lesse, which they take from the taile of snake.”

Benjamin Franklin promoted the snake as a cultural icon in 1751, when he wrote “Rattlesnakes for Felons,” an essay that suggested the colonies export the snakes to London in retaliation for the King’s unloading British felons on the colonies. From 1776 to 1778 Esek Hopkins, the first commander-in-chief of the American Navy, flew a yellow flag with a coiled timber rattlesnake that bore the now-famous motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”

The timber rattlesnake as positive symbol for youthful America did not last long. Originally found in 31 states, from east Texas to Minnesota and from northern Florida to New England, as well as in southern Ontario and southwestern Quebec, timber rattlesnakes have been extirpated in Maine, Rhode Island (in the 1980s), and Michigan, and are on the verge of vanishing from New Hampshire. In fact, New Hampshire has seven hills, one point, and one island named “rattlesnake” but only one active den, and that lies between Concord and Manchester, the state’s urban center. My home state of Vermont, an acknowledged center of forward thinking and environmental justice, paid a bounty for timber rattlesnakes from 1894 to 1971—a dollar a tail—then listed them as an endangered species in 1987. Our own view of rattlesnakes is more venomous than the snakes themselves. In the recorded history of Vermont, only a single fatal snakebite is reported: A weathered tombstone in Putney reads “Killed by a Serpente.”

Rulon Clark’s snakes live at distribution’s northern edge for the entire rattlesnake tribe and continue to roll evolution’s dice, gambling that in a landscape with little competition they can survive and reproduce during a truncated growing season. In the Northeast, timber rattlesnakes den in precise locations—microclimates—where the heat of the sun warms southeast- or southwest-facing rock outcroppings, usually steep talus slopes above exposed ledges. Deep fissures allow the snakes access to frost-free subterranean chambers, where they ball together (sometimes by the hundreds) to prevent both freezing and desiccation. Den sites (called hibernacula) are the limiting factor in their distribution, and these long-lived, slow-reproducing reptiles do not quickly repopulate depleted dens.

A female timber rattlesnake reaches sexual maturity at nine or ten, reproducing only at three-, four-, and five-year intervals. Only a few adult females are able to reproduce more than twice in their lifetimes. Gravid snakes stay near the den all summer, basking and fasting, living like monks off the proceeds of long forgotten meals. It takes years to recover from the pregnancy. Six to ten very vulnerable young, born in late summer, remain near their mother until the crisp air of October ushers them all below ground.

 

On a warm day in late April or May, in the company of Alcott Smith, a retired veterinarian who monitors Vermont rattlesnakes, I might see 20 or more snakes around the mouth of a den, waiting with the patience of Job for nights to warm. They then disperse up the ledges or down the valleys and wander in serpentine loops across miles of woods and wetlands, feeding and slithering, until the chill of late August lures them toward the den. Big males leave first, then non-breeding females and young. Pregnant females stay behind and bask—which is a problem.

Northern timber rattlesnakes sell for a hundred dollars or more on the black market. A den I visited with Alcott, owned and protected by The Nature Conservancy, was pillaged by collectors who could easily sack 10 or more snakes in a day. The same trait that made the snakes susceptible to bounty hunters makes them susceptible to collectors: predictability. If you know where a den is, snakes will be there in season, entwined and basking, benign and vulnerable.

One poacher, Rudy Komarek, an itinerant car washer and carny, has removed more than 9,000 timber rattlesnakes from dens, mostly in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, since the 1950s. Eighty-one and the self-proclaimed “Cobra King,” Komarek has a website (currently offline) from which he sells maps to snake dens and offers private rattlesnake-collecting trips (prices start at $5,000). He also runs an ad for a “young, slender female” who enjoys “travel, adventure, hiking, and mountains.”

Komarek has appeared on the The Tonight Show, CNN, and the front page of The Wall Street Journal. He also appears on wanted posters in New York—he skipped bail, then fled the state when he was apprehended for poaching snakes in Harriman State Park. His snake-collecting license was revoked in Pennsylvania; he was deported from Kansas for possession of timber rattlesnakes; he served numerous stints in jail and paid numerous fines, including four months in a federal prison and a $2,500 fine for trafficking timber rattlesnakes; and he was arrested for possession of illegal weapons (baby timber rattlers) in connection with the placement of three baby rattlers in the home of a woman who was at odds with a friend of Komarek’s. The woman survived, and Komarek spent three months in jail for the crime.

Komarek once sent Skidmore College herpetologist William Brown a photograph of two boxes of captive timber rattlesnakes. A handwritten note on the reverse side of the picture read: “Bill, We heard about your problem being bitten in the leg the SECOND time, so we ellimated the problem! In the future leave the collecting of poisonus snakes to the experts.

“Speaking of the future, we will be collecting many poisonus snakes in he future as there’s much money to be made! In case you’re wondering, ther are 62 snakes in the boxes (2 days hunting).”

To torment biologists, when Komarek visits a study site he often moves den rocks around to disrupt and destroy habitat. In retaliation, Brown has distributed poaching posters across the Northeast, given talks about Komarek’s illegal activities, and co-written an article about Komarek’s poaching activities that appeared in The Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society. (As Audubon went to press, word came out that Komarek had died of a massive heart attack.)

 

On April 21 and again on April 28, I joined Alcott Smith at each of Vermont’s three snake dens. Two were remote; one was along a ledge above a busy state highway. The sound of passing cars filled the valley. At all three dens snakes were either basking or moving unseen through the talus, scales scraping rock. At one site, the slope above the marsh, snakes were tinged orange, stained by a veneer of iron oxide—rust—that coated the iron-rich talus. The snakes were adults, smaller than Hank and Travis but large by Vermont standards, 35 to 40 inches. In a week or two the neonates (or newborns) and pregnant females would be out.

We returned on May 28 and found only small rattlesnakes, a year or two old, and one pregnant female, lounging in the sunshine beneath a balcony of rock. Eight oval embryos, like beans in a pod, firm and growing, crowded her abdominal cavity. There was no room for food.

In the woods beyond the ledge, Alcott found a three-foot-long rattlesnake coiled against the trunk of a red oak. The snake was outside a denning zone, en route to a life obscured by the oak–hornbeam woods of western Vermont, feeding and moving and basking. If someone (like us) found this snake, it would be quite by accident, which is why Rulon Clark’s research in central New York so intrigues me.

Clark, carrying a collapsible antenna, radio-tracks the snakes as day length and the unseen scent trails of potential prey and other rattlesnakes guide them. After watching Hank sunbathe, which is analogous to watching a length of gorgeous, thick cable, Clark carefully captures the snake with aluminum snake tongs, a utilitarian cross between a golf putter and pliers. He coaxes Hank into a Plexiglas tube. I hold the rear half of the snake, rough and muscular, while Clark examines the front half, safely stowed in the see-through tube. A scar on the lower jaw, likely the mark of an aggressive and desperate mouse or chipmunk, is all that’s unseemly. We return Hank to the foundation and he pours down the stones, disappearing into a cowlick of brambles.

Back in Ithaca for lunch, Clark opens a laptop, downloads the snake-surveillance videos, and then plays snippets of the hidden lives of timber rattlesnakes for me. The sequences are short, seconds really. A mouse runs over a snake, peeks into the camera lens, then hops away, unscathed. A gray squirrel runs past the snake, leaps away, then returns to torment its incubus, jumping, chattering, flicking its bushy tail, just beyond strike range—half the length of the rattlesnake. As long as the squirrel hurls its insults, the serpent, cryptic or no, will surprise nothing. The footage reminds me of crows or jays mobbing an owl, only the squirrel is a lot closer to the business end of the rattlesnake.

Next, head against a log, a rattlesnake waits in ambush—a snake chooses a potential feeding site using its tongue to detect the odor of prey. If log or runway or burrow smells (tastes) promising, the snake stays. Instead of a mouse, a long-tailed weasel, perhaps attracted by the same cocktail of odors, appears on screen and is struck on the hip—a blur even when the video is slowed down.

The stricken weasel then leaps out of view, also a blur. A strike covers a distance of a few inches to more than a foot. From start to finish it takes less than half a second. If a marathon runner could contract his leg muscles at the same rate and expend as little energy as a rattling rattlesnake, he would complete a 26-mile race in less than eight and a half minutes.

After several minutes the rattlesnake slowly unravels, tongue extended, reading the air, then moves off-screen to swallow the weasel, which is already being digested from the inside out by enzymes in the venom. Prey is usually consumed head first, slowly and methodically, like most things a rattlesnake does. After a meal, the snake relaxes and then, driven by hunger, moves to another promising site. And waits. And waits. For mice usually—white-footed, deer, meadow voles, red-backed voles, pine voles—and shrews, chipmunks, squirrels, and cottontails. And sometimes nosy birds, like catbirds. When a timber rattlesnake strikes a bird, it hangs on until the bird stops struggling. Unlike a fleeing mammal, a bird that flies away before dying would be difficult, if not impossible, to track.

On one of Clark’s videos a horned owl checks out a rattlesnake as its own possible meal. On another, a deer vents, prancing and pawing the ground, utterly disrupting the snake’s solitude. On my favorite video, an unsuspecting hiker finds the remote camera, performs for the lens, his wide-angle, face-full smile like the Cheshire Cat’s, his left foot inches from a coiled, yet placid, rattlesnake.

 

Freelance writer Ted Levin lives in Vermont.

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