Basin rattlesnakes can be dangerous

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This is the third in a series about dangerous and irritating Eastern Washington Critters.

Rattlesnakes abound in the Columbia Basin and Eastern Washington. My Dad, Max Clay, grew up in Number One Canyon, behind Wenatchee. He said one summer the family hired-hand filled a quart jar with rattlesnake rattles.

I’ve been around these snakes and have seen them all my life. Dad educated me and the rest of the family early. Don’t walk through tall grass in rattlesnake country. Don’t reach into an area where you can’t see everything, such as the base of a sagebrush with grass around it.

Dad taught me to kill every rattler we found and I continued this practice for many years, until about 10 years ago. These days I let them go, moving them if they need to be moved.

My walking stick in rattlesnake country is a garden spade. This allows me to either kill the snake or move it. Many years ago, when fishing Corral Lake, a snake was spotted crawling along the rocks at the lake’s edge. It was a beautiful yellow color, for the most part, and it was not associated with being a rattler, so I reached for it.

Just then the tail of the snake crossed my view. A good number of rattles were attached to the tail. My hand snapped back as if it had touched a hot stove.

Another time, while elk hunting south of Wenatchee, a snake was spotted ahead of me. It was a beautiful greenish color with rattles on the tail. The skin was preserved for a hatband. Friends called it a timber rattler, because of the color, but it is not clear if there is such a species as a timber rattler.

While guiding a group of home-schoolers three years ago to the Lake Lenore Caves, the group stopped at the base of the first cave, which was up a steep incline with a bunch of loose rocks. I told the group this was the first cave, but we wouldn’t be going to this one because the trail was too steep and a bit dangerous because of the rocks.

I turned to walk toward the next cave when someone mentioned a snake. Up the trail to the first cave and crossing the trail was a large snake. It was the first rattlesnake seen by most of the group.

Fishing Rocky Ford Creek has produced many rattlesnake sightings and other snake sightings as well. The most aggressive is the bull snake, which will rear up, much like a cobra, and hiss.

While deer hunting near Cle Elum during my high school days, a rotten log was turned over and a rubber boa came into view. It was picked up and placed on my wrist. It remained there for the rest of the hunt. Finally, the snake was given to the high school biology class.

Here is what Fish and Wildlife says about Washington snakes. Snakes are among the most misunderstood of all animals. As a result, many harmless, beneficial snakes have met untimely deaths at the hands of shovel-wielding humans. Of the dozen or so species of snakes found in Washington, only the Western rattlesnake is capable of inflicting a venomous bite, which it seldom does.

Snakes should be left alone and, except for a rattlesnake that poses an immediate danger to people or pets, no snake should ever be killed. Observe snakes, like all wild animals, from a respectful distance.

All snakes are an important part of the natural food chain, eating a variety of prey, from mice and birds to frogs and insects. Snakes are predators and eat many animals thought to be pests, such as mice, voles, snails, and slugs, along with insects, bird eggs and nestlings, fish, frogs, and lizards.

Snakes have hinged jaws that allow them to consume food that is wider than their bodies. Snakes have forked tongues that deposit air molecules on receptors in the mouth. Thus, snakes “taste” the air, which helps them locate prey and sense their way in the dark. Snakes store food as fat and can live off their fat reserve for extended periods of time.

Snakes in Washington hibernate during winter, either alone or in a group site called a hibernaculum or snake den. The dens are also used for shelter at other times and include rodent burrows, spaces under logs and tree stumps, rock crevices, and lumber and rock piles.

Snake dens must remain warm enough to prevent death by freezing, they must be neither too dry nor too wet, and they must be adequately ventilated. Snakes will use the same den year after year. Several hundred snakes and different species may occupy the same den. Emergence from hibernation can begin as early as March, depending on the species and location.

Courtship and mating occurs shortly after snakes emerge from the den. Garter snakes, rubber boas and Western rattlesnakes bear live young from eggs retained in the body until hatching. All other Washington snakes lay eggs in protected areas where the eggs receive enough external heat to hatch. Young are born from July through September, and fend for themselves after hatching.

Next week: More info about Washington snakes.

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