Vt. rattlesnakes barely holding on
By Dennis Jensen
Herald Staff | August 25,2007
VYTO STARINSKAS / RUTLAND HERALD
A rare Eastern timber rattlesnake, about 3 feet long, lifts its head moments before uncoiling and slithering under a pile of logs on Wednesday in western Rutland County.
The coal-black beauty lay coiled in the hollow of several rotted logs, alert and statue-still.
If it was aware of the five humans who were taking photos, studying it and talking excitedly about their luck over their discovery, the Eastern timber rattlesnake didn't show it.
With their numbers down to just "a couple of hundred" remaining in Vermont, according to biologist Doug Blodgett, it was a long shot at best that the group actually found the timber rattler, one of the least-understood wild animals in a still-wild Vermont.
Only two small pockets of rattlesnake populations remain in the Green Mountain State, and these Vermont natives are a classic example of a wild animal doing its best to thrive — in what is often a hostile environment.
It is no secret that, because of a combination of fear and misunderstanding, rattlesnakes are sometimes killed by homeowners and landowners who have an unnatural fear of these reclusive — and often unseen — reptiles.
One of the main purposes of the outing, which took place on Wednesday, was to give the public a better understanding of Vermont's only poisonous snake.
The group consisted of Blodgett, who works for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department; Emily Boedecker of the Nature Conservancy; rattlesnake enthusiast Paul Jardine of Fair Haven; and a photographer and a writer for the Herald.
The search took place on an overcast afternoon in one of only two known areas that are populated by rattlers. Both are located in western Rutland County.
After about two hours of hiking, stopping periodically to take a closer look at likely places where a rattlesnake might appear on an afternoon with temperatures in the upper 60s, the prospects for success began to look a bit grim.
Not only are timber rattlesnakes extremely rare, they are difficult to find because they blend in so well with their surroundings, Blodgett said.
"Timber rattlesnakes are terribly cryptic," Blodgett said. "They're so well camouflaged they're hard to see. They don't move. They look like a pile of leaves. People could easily walk by one."
Shy and docile
The rattle at the end of the snake's tail serves as an ample warning, particularly for predators. It says, "I'm dangerous, don't come near me."
The fact that a rattlesnake injects venom into its small prey with its fangs probably goes a long way toward explaining the almost-pathological fear that some humans have for these snakes.
It is a most unfounded fear, according to Blodgett, Boedecker and Jardine.
"One message I'd like to send out is that these critters are not necessarily lying in wait to eat you," Blodgett said. "They're very shy, very docile."
Boedecker said that a rattlesnake is not equipped with venom as a way to ward off possible predators.
"Their poison is designed to immobilize and kill small prey," she said.
What are your chances of being bitten by an Eastern timber rattler in Vermont? Perhaps as good as winning the Powerball lottery.
"We've asked around," Boedecker said. "We don't have any record of anyone ever being bitten in Vermont. The difference between the myth and the reality is a real gulf."
Blodgett said the myth of the dangerous rattlesnake is one big reason for its decline.
"That's why they have been persecuted," he said. "It is way out of proportion to any real threat."
After pushing through the woods for nearly two hours, the group began to think out loud that this might not be a day for finding rattlesnakes.
Then Blodgett spotted the timber rattler, a black-colored version "probably basking" on the pile of decaying, stacked logs.
"See. It's not aggressive. Just stay back a reasonable distance," he told the others.
Blodgett said it was his guess that this was a mature rattler, about 5 to 7 years old. The three-foot-long snake had hints of brownish chevrons with a triangular head, a sure sign of a pit viper.
"We are extremely lucky to find this critter today," he said.
"Rattlesnakes have a tenuous energy budget. They follow sun patterns to pick up heat. Their body temperature is controlled by the ambient temperature," Blodgett said.
Vermont rattlers exist in a "harsh climate," Blodgett said. "What's unique about the Vermont rattler is that it exists in the very, very northern fringe of [the animal's range]. The fact that they survive in Vermont is spectacular."
'Fittest of the fit'
According to Jardine, the coloration of Eastern timber rattlesnakes can range from coal black to a golden yellow. Black rattlers are the rule.
With extremely poor vision, rattlesnakes rely on their other senses.
"They can sense vibration," Jardine said. "They'll sense that a rodent has a route in and out. They sense that with their tongues. When a rodent comes by, they'll strike, inject the venom and then wait a little while. The (venom) they inject into their prey breaks down their prey. They will swallow it whole, almost always head first."
After 15 minutes or so, the rattler picked up the sense of something big moving about — a photographer — and slowly moved away, disappearing under the cover of a pile of old logs.
Boedecker said that, with the exception of a small pocket of timber rattlers in New Hampshire and in western Massachusetts, Vermont has New England's most vibrant population, despite their low numbers.
"These guys are the fittest of the fit up here," she said.
At one time, in the not-too-distant past, Vermonters were paid to kill their native rattlers.
"There was still a bounty on rattlesnakes until 1971," Boedecker said.
The Eastern timber rattlesnake in Vermont was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1987.
Elsewhere in their range, Eastern timber rattlesnakes are "doing OK," Blodgett said, but the species faces the same threats in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states that has placed it in such peril here in Vermont.
"In the Southern states, in the heart of their range, they are under pressure, but holding their own," he said. "The reason is continued habitat loss and persecution" by humans.
Their numbers and den sites have declined largely because of the ignorance of humans and development in the Green Mountain State.
"We're down to a couple of hundred," Blodgett said. "We're down to two small, endangered populations left in the state. There's darn few of them."
Eastern timber rattlesnakes face a daunting task here. Because of Vermont's long, cold winters, the snakes hibernate in dens for about seven months. They exist over those long months without eating.
"Genetically, these snakes are so fit they can survive in a really harsh climate," Blodgett said. "That's why these critters are so unique."
Hunting and basking
Adults don't breed until they are 7 to 10 years of age. Breeding occurs in June and July. The sperm of a male is stored in the body of the female until the following June, Blodgett said. Then the sperm is released to fertilize. There is a three-month gestation period; birth occurs in September.
Breeding females have a litter only once every three or four years, Blodgett said.
The female incubates the eggs inside her body and gives birth in the spring. Between three and 10 young are born live, but the offspring "have a high mortality rate," according to Boedecker.
Eastern timber rattlesnakes, which average about 3 feet in length as adults, live about 15 to 20 years in the wild.
In the summer months rattlers spend most of their time hunting and basking, Jardine said. Rattlers consume prey about once every two or three weeks.
"A clearing in the forest is a good foraging area for Eastern timber rattlers," he said.
Blodgett said the presence of timber rattlers this far north is testimony to the snake's sheer willingness to survive.
"We need to embrace this animal, rather than persecute it or destroy it," he said.
People who study the lives and habits of Vermont's rattlesnakes are reluctant to talk about what role humans play in the destruction of these animals, but it is clearly a factor in their decline.
"If one person takes out one female rattlesnake, that can have a detrimental effect on the entire population," Boedecker said.
"If you are one of the few people who are lucky enough to see a rattlesnake, go home and feel proud about it," she said.
Vermont homeowners or farmers will sometimes find a rattlesnake on their property. Blodgett said that killing a rattler is not only against the law, it is pointless.
"Occasionally, a snake will ramble on to a nearby farm or yard," he said. "Rather than kill it, we have a team of trained volunteers who will come and safely remove and relocate the snake."
Since the Eastern timber rattlesnake in Vermont is an endangered species, the penalty for killing one is a $1,000 fine and restitution of $1,000.
Jardine, who returned to Vermont last October after a yearlong tour in Iraq, has been studying Eastern timber rattlesnakes for years.
"I spend a lot of time in the woods, looking for foraging areas and birthing areas," he said.
Boedecker, Blodgett and Jardine were delighted and surprised about finding a rattlesnake in the Vermont countryside.
"Looking for a rattlesnake is like looking for a needle in a haystack," Jardine said.
Rattlesnake Removal Program: If you find a rattlesnake on your property, do not handle it or try to move the snake yourself. Call one of the following people; they are trained to safely remove rattlesnakes:
Rob Sterling, Vermont Fish & Wildlife, 773-9101
Paul Jardine, Fair Haven, 579-0058
Mike Horner, Hubbardton, 273-3530
David Fedor-Cunningham, Benson, 537-4461
Mary Droege, West Haven, 265-8645
Contact Dennis Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org