Like to hike, but worried about blundering into a nest of snakes? Your concern is probably exaggerated. New York State is home to only three venomous snake species: the timber rattlesnake, the massasauga (found only in the Rochester/Syracuse area) and the copperhead. All are uncommon, and the timber rattler is listed as a Threatened species in New York.
“Timber rattlesnakes are generally found in deciduous forests in rugged terrain. In the summer, gravid (pregnant) females seem to prefer open, rocky ledges where temperatures are higher, while the males and non-gravid females seem to prefer cooler, thicker woods where the forest canopy is more closed,” says the Department of Environmental Conservation. “Dens are generally on open, steep, south-facing slopes with rock fissures or talus surrounded by hardwood forests.”
Sounds awfully reminiscent of the Shawangunks, doesn’t it? Yes, timber rattlers are occasionally to be found there – but not with ease. Decades ago, the late Thom Scheuer, former head ranger at the Mohonk Preserve, told of a team of herpetologists who came to the Gunks with the specific intention of finding and studying wild rattlesnakes. Although they spent a couple of weeks combing the talus slopes that would seem to be prime habitat, with Scheuer as their knowledgeable guide, the scientists went away empty-handed.
Not that they’d actually want to pick one up. There have been no recent recorded cases in New York State of human fatalities from a bite from a timber rattler, but symptoms may be severe, including nausea, vomiting, paralysis and tissue damage, and an allergic reaction can certainly be life-threatening. A dog twice bitten in Minnewaska State Park in 2014 succumbed to the venom.
Being cold-blooded, snakes do like to bask in the sun, which enhances their survival potential by raising their body temperature without expenditure of calories. But rattlers are generally shy of human activity, snuggling up in dens and crevices when they’re not basking or hunting. You’re more likely to hear one than to see one.
Still, it may come in handy one day to be able to identify a rattler by sight. The adult Eastern timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is stockily built and ranges in length from three to four-and-a-half feet, fully extended (you’re more likely to see one coiled up). It’s classified as a pit viper, in reference to the indentations on either side of the head that serve to sense nearby prey by temperature. Like others of their kind, their heads are triangular to leave room inside the skull for the poison glands. If the head is a striking yellow-orangey color, that’s a copperhead: also wisely left alone.
The timber rattlesnake’s color pattern varies somewhat, but typically features black or brown crossbands against a yellowish, brown or grey background. There’s also a rarer black color phase, in which the bands are harder to distinguish against a dark brown or even nearly black background. But it’s still easy to tell apart from the two black-bodied snakes that are common to the region: the small, slender black racer, whose back is a solid black color, and the larger, thicker black rat snake, whose black back may be slightly mottled with white or grey. Both have white under their chins, extending further back in the rat snake. Neither has bars, and both have narrow leaf-shaped heads.
The most distinctive feature of the timber rattlesnake, of course, is the rattle, which starts as a single “button” at birth; the snake grows a new segment with each molting, which occurs once every one-to-two years. So, theoretically, you should be able to estimate the age of a rattler by counting the segments, like rings in a tree. But the rattles are brittle and have a tendency to break off easily, so this is not a strictly reliable method.
Late April/early May is the time of year when timber rattlers are emerging from hibernation, which happens in dens below the frost line, often in company with dozens of other snakes to conserve body heat. They tend to be sluggish at first, feeding little, until mating time draws near later in spring. The young are born live, not from eggs, from late August to mid-September. Timber rattlesnakes feed mainly on rodents, but birds, amphibians and even other snakes can also be part of their diets. The year-round range of an individual snake generally doesn’t exceed two-and-a-half miles from its winter den.
Timber rattlers shun very high altitudes, but otherwise favor hilly and mountainous areas throughout the Appalachians. Once more widely distributed in New York State, they are now found mainly in isolated populations in southeastern New York, the Southern Tier and the peripheral eastern Adirondacks. The state long encouraged the killing of venomous snakes, even awarding bounties until they were outlawed in 1971. Nowadays the timber rattlesnake is protected by law. In June of 2018, a contractor at a construction site in the Town of Woodstock was issued a summons for possession of threatened species parts, after killing a timber rattler at a job site and cutting off the head and rattle for souvenirs.
Recovery of rattlesnake populations in the state has been slow, due to unregulated collection and indiscriminate killing. Many are run over by automobiles during their most active months, in the summer. Female timber rattlers typically don’t bear young every year. And their habitat is under pressure due to development. A battle by environmentalists to save a timber rattlesnake den in the Hudson Highlands from being dynamited to expand a quarry by a mining company called Sour Mountain Realty led to some precedent-setting court decisions in 1999, which established New York’s right to enforce the state’s Endangered Species Act on private property. Eventually Scenic Hudson acquired the threatened site and made it part of the Fishkill Ridge Conservation Area, linking up the northern and southern sections of Hudson Highlands State Park.
What it mostly comes down to is this: If you leave rattlers alone, they’ll leave you alone. To learn more about them, visit www.dec.ny.gov/docs/administration_pdf/snakes.pdf.