Phantoms of the Forest: The Secretive Nature of Timber Rattlesnakes

Timber Rattlesnakes, although very dangerous animals when harassed, rely first on their camouflage for defense, and last on their venom (with several steps in between). They are very docile animals that, under most circumstances, go to great lengths to avoid biting humans. In truth, if their objective was to bite and envenomate every passing human they would have little to no use for their rattle, which serves only as a courtesy warning to would-be predators. It’s their way of saying “I’m here, I can defend myself, seek an alternate route.” And more often than not, they won’t even use their rattles unless their cover is blown or someone is literally about to step on them. On rare occasions people can be bitten by a Timber Rattlesnake they step on or next to, but by and large the vast majority of bites are a direct result of someone harassing these marvelous animals. I have seen hundreds of Timber Rattlesnakes and never once have I seen one take the offensive. They usually just sit there, motionless and silent in hopes that nobody will notice them, but if their camouflage fails they either flee in the opposite direction, retreat to nearby cover, or hold their ground and issue the courtesy rattle. While I have seen many examples of the snakes going to great lengths to avoid detection, I would like to share with you the story of my first true Timber Rattlesnake experience; not the first time I observed the species in the wild, but the first time I witnessed their truer nature with my own eyes. 


Often mistaken as a threat, a rattlesnake's rattle should be thought of as a courtesy warning. It is the snake's way of telling would-be predators or large clueless herbivores to adjust their path of travel.

Over ten years ago I was determined to find my very first Timber Rattlesnakes without the help of others who had shown me around some timber sites in the past. I had recently been hired as a technician to help study a population of Timber Rattlesnakes using radio telemetry, but that job would not start until the following year. Permit in hand and itching to get out there and become more familiar with the sites and resident snakes, I set out to an area I suspected would have gravid (pregnant) female timbers. 

This pair of gravid Timber Rattlesnakes spent most of the summer sheltering under or next to a warm rock with good sun exposure and were the first two rattlesnaes I ever found without the assistance of more experienced herpetologists.

A Timber Rattlesnake, when gravid, will find a warm rocky area with good sun exposure to spend the summer. During that time she won’t eat often, or at all, and instead focuses all of her attention on keeping herself warm to expedite the development of her young. She may retreat under her selected gestation rock or venture into nearby brush to bask, but will seldom fully expose herself, relying heavily on her cryptic pattern to avoid detection by predators. By the end of the summer, after giving birth, she will protect her young for about a week, but once the newborn rattlers shed their skins for the first time, they will scatter and she will venture back into the woods in an attempt to fatten up just a little bit before winter. This whole process is a very sensitive time for female Timber Rattlesnakes, and before her first post-partum meal, she will have used up most of her fat reserves. Rebuilding those reserves takes time and as far north as northern New England, it may be four or more years before she is able to give birth again.

If they aren't traveling between sites or hunting, Timber Rattlesnakes spend most of their time hiding motionless on the forest floor, sometimes using leaves and debris for extra camouflage.

The site I visited was not one I had been to before, but I had a pretty good idea of where females would be gestating. A gravid female tends not to stray far from her chosen gestation rock all summer, so wherever she is in late spring is most likely where she’ll be near summer’s end. As luck would have it, on my first attempt out there in late May I found a pair of gravid females. Not wanting to disturb them, I simply took some photos from a distance and left. Knowing where they were, however, was too great a temptation for me to resist and I revisited the site periodically through the summer, about every two or three weeks, always taking care to observe them from a distance to avoid stressing the snakes during this sensitive period in their lives. The pair was very predictable – they were always next to their chosen boulder, in a crevice between the boulder and bedrock, or hiding under a nearby juniper bush. Until the day one of them wasn’t.

After scouring the forest floor for several minutes in search of this Timber Rattlesnake that had a radio transmitter, I finally spotted its rattle poking out of the leaf litter. It wasn't until getting home and reviewing photos later that I noticed the snake's face staring at me from under a leaf in the top right of the image. The snake had likely been watching me the entire time and chose to remain completely motionless to avoid detection.

On a trip in early July, only one of the pair was at the rock and the other had seemingly vanished. As it was too early in the summer for her to have given birth I feared something may have happened to her, but I also hadn’t ruled out the possibility that she might just be hiding nearby. I got on my hands and knees and peered under the rock to make sure she wasn’t just wedged deep inside. Seeing nothing in there, I got back up, looked all around the rock, under a juniper bush by the rock, back inside the rock, through all the surrounding low bush blueberry, back under the juniper, and on and on. Using a mirror to shine light inside the rock crevice, I got down on my hands and knees once more, placed my head near the ground, and looked inside as far back as I could, accidentally placing my head right up against the juniper bush in the process. Nothing. She was completely gone. Dismayed, I stood up, turned my back, and walked away. I had made it perhaps five paces when I heard something slither through dry leaves behind me. Turning around to glance back over my shoulder, there she was, 4 feet of jet black rattlesnake uncoiling from around the base of the juniper bush – the same bush I had just inadvertently stuck my head against moments ago – and retreating to the safety of her crevice. She had been there the whole time, knew I was looking for her, knew I couldn’t see her, and made her move to safety only when she knew I was no longer looking and would not see her move. Using her rattle would have only blown her cover, so she remained motionless and silent until my back was turned and I was walking away.

Even completely exposed on the forest floor, Timber Rattlesnakes can sometimes be remarkably difficult to spot. Although this snake was located using radio telemetry, it still took me a minute or two to spot him after narrowing his location down to a small wet depression in the woods.

Over the next two years I would see many examples of Timber Rattlesnakes behaving like this. Fully capable of defending themselves against human interlopers, they chose to remain unseen and just let us wander by, blissfully unaware of their presence. Because the snakes I tracked were broadcasting a radio signal, I could find them no matter how well they were hiding (if you were to ask them, they would probably say radio telemetry is cheating). Yet, it was this first pair of gravid females that really opened my eyes not only to how docile the species truly is, but also how well their camouflage works when the snakes are in their element and choose not to be seen. And, unless you are lucky enough to spot one on its way between point A and point B, they almost always choose not to be seen. 

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