Decapitated timber rattlesnake found at Rattlesnake Creek

By SANDY LONG

LACKAWAXEN, PA — A dead timber rattlesnake was discovered last week draped across the guardrail of a bridge that crosses Rattlesnake Creek. The head and rattle had been removed from the nearly 50-inch snake, leaving the body gruesomely displayed, where passing motorist John Jose found it. Jose is a biologist and watershed specialist with the Pike County Conservation District in Hawley.

According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), which regulates the state’s reptile population, a single timber rattlesnake (TR) may be harvested annually, but only with a permit, and only between June 11 and July 31. The fine for killing a rattlesnake outside of these parameters is $50, with possible additional fees. The act is considered a summary offense.

“At one time, some PA counties offered a bounty on TRs, and they were considered a nuisance species to be rounded up and eliminated,” Christopher Urban, a herpetology specialist with the PFBC, said. “Presently, the TR appears to be declining across its range and in Pennsylvania. The decline of the TR is attributed mainly to human activities related to habitat alteration, over-hunting and poaching.”

People hunt snakes for their rattles and skins, but also to sell—illegally—as exotic pets. And often, people kill snakes out of an exaggerated fear of them.

The fear factor

The Upper Delaware region boasts many charms, some of which are valued by one of its most dreaded residents. Just the name “crotalus horridus” is enough to “create horror.” The mossy rock outcrops and forested landscapes that draw people here also appeal to the slithering reptile that many people wish would find another place to call home.

Victim of many myths, the TR has been haunted by misinformation and hunted to its current classification as a “candidate species.” That means the species requires careful monitoring. The PFBC urges anyone who catches a candidate species to release it “immediately and unharmed to the waters or other area from which it was taken.”

“There was a time,” said John Serrao, a professional naturalist based in Canadensis, PA, “when the first reaction to a TR was to kill it.” Serrao, who conducts natural education programs at camps, parks, schools, resorts and environmental learning centers, has studied reptiles and amphibians in the tri-county region for the past 20 years.

Serrao described the TR as “a specialized, highly evolved animal with the ability to detect prey with heat-sensing pits, strike at a fraction of a second with superb accuracy and find prey by following its scent trail—all in pitch-black darkness. Their rattle protects them and it protects us. They’re absolutely thrilling.”

Dr. Howard Reinert, an ecologist and herpetologist who teaches at Trenton State University in New Jersey, agreed. In the film, “Timber Rattlesnakes: Shadow of Misunderstanding,” produced by the PA Wild Resources Conservation Fund, Reinert emphasized that TRs are docile and non-aggressive.

Reinert’s research has shown that rattlesnakes make a foraging loop that starts in spring and concludes at their dens at summer’s end. Males roam 140 acres on average; females typically cover 40 acres in search of food. When people encounter a rattlesnake, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the snake lives nearby or is attempting to move in. It might simply be passing through.

“It’s a matter of learning to co-exist,” Jose said. “The presence of rattlesnakes represents our willingness and ability to cohabitate with an animal that truly needs wild places. They are a part of our rich cultural and ecological history and have been here for thousands of years. From an ecological perspective, this has great significance for all of us.”

Snakes help reduce rodent populations, including mice, shrews, chipmunks and even squirrels. They also provide nourishment to various birds, mammals and other snakes. But their preservation is important on many levels. Dr. Art Hulse, director of the PA Herpetological Atlas Project, which catalogued reptile and amphibian populations in Pennsylvania over a seven-year period, said, “If you’re lucky enough to see a TR in the wild, cherish the moment. They pose no threat whatsoever as long as they are treated with respect.”

Anyone with information pertaining to the Lackawaxen snake killing should contact the PFBC at 570/477-5717.

Did You Know?

The following information is adapted from “Snakes in Pennsylvania,” by Andrew Shiels of the PFBC, and other sources.

1. New York and New Jersey classify the TR as threatened or endangered and allow no harvesting, while in Pennsylvania, “rattlesnake roundups,” events where snakes are collected, displayed and handled for public observation, are still considered legal activities.

2. Rattlesnakes emerge from hibernation in late spring. The average male is four feet long, and the average female is three-and-one-half feet long. They have triangular heads, elliptical pupils and two heat-sensing organs between the nose and eyes. Female rattlesnakes do not bear young until they reach seven to eight years of age and only bear young every two to three years.

3. Rattlesnakes prefer areas with a heavy canopy of low leaves, fallen logs and rock outcrops for basking in the sun to regulate body temperature, aid digestion and develop eggs.

4. Snakes possess a forked tongue that flickers in and out of the mouth as the snake performs scent trailing—used to locate prey, find mates and return to hibernating areas. When a snake “flickers” its tongue in your direction, it is trying to determine where you are and whether you are a threat.

Contributed photo
Snakes like this eastern timber rattlesnake are often killed out of fear, or for their rattles, heads and skins. (Click for larger version)