The Timber Rattlesnake. Photo: Pete Oxford

Timber Rattlesnake

Timber Rattlesnakes are iconic predators of eastern North American hardwood forests. Timber Rattlesnakes are a symbol that Americans have always associated with strength and freedom. They were used as symbol of our unity during the French and Indian Wars and of our freedom during the American Revolution. They were prominently displayed on a flag with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” Ben Franklin thought that the Timber Rattlesnake should be considered as a candidate for our national symbol.

They are often one of the last remaining top predators in the landscapes they inhabit and are true symbols of the last remaining wild places in Eastern North America. Timber Rattlesnakes feed primarily on rodents such as squirrels and mice and can play an important role in regulating their populations.

As a long-lived species with a high age at maturity and low annual fecundity, survival of adults, especially females, is key to population viability. Habitat fragmentation by roads has resulted in many snakes being killed by traffic, often intentionally. Because older and larger snakes tend to disperse farther from the dens every year, it is those larger individuals who are most important to rattlesnake populations but are also most likely to encounter roads. In some areas, Timber Rattlesnake dens have been isolated entirely from larger populations by roads, fields and developments, and they have begun to differentiate genetically.

Persecution by humans is a major threat to the species, and until the 1970s, many northeastern states paid a bounty for any killed rattlesnake. In most of these states, the species is now protected, but because bounty hunters were able to find gestating females more easily than any other snakes and because large numbers of snakes could be harvested at dens, the bounty effectively reduced populations to low levels in many places and possibly wiped out denning colonies. Despite the legal protections afforded to the species in the northeast now, intentional killing of snakes is still common practice. In the southeast, while no bounty is paid for the killing of Timber Rattlesnakes, the species is not protected and killing of the species is legal.

While bites from Timber Rattlesnakes can harm people, such bites are extremely rare and usually are the result of a person harassing or attempting to kill the snake. When a Timber Rattlesnake is encountered in the wild, the safest thing to do is to leave it alone and walk around it. The snake will not defend itself unless provoked. In the event of a bite, one should remain calm and seek emergency help. Deaths from Timber Rattlesnake bites are almost unheard of, and if medical help is sought out quickly, it is possible to avoid permanent tissue damage. If a Timber Rattlesnake is seen on your property and you feel uncomfortable having it in close proximity to your house, rather than kill it you should contact your state Department of Natural Resources or Fish and Wildlife Services. Many states have removal programs, and people in those departments should know who the best person to contact is.

 


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