Bidwell Park is Rattlesnake Country

By Jon Aull

rattlesnake-JA_newThe Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalis oreganos oreganos) is the Northern California subpecies of the Western Rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes are the only venomous land snakes in California. While generally not aggressive, rattlesnakes can bite if handled, stepped on, or otherwise disturbed. The majority of the more than 800 reported bites a year occur when a snake is accidentally touched by climbers or hikers. One or two of these bite victims die each year. Most bites occur between April and October when the snakes are most active. During the hottest months, rattlesnakes become nocturnal. They are an important component of the ecosystem, feeding on frogs, lizards, other snakes, mice, voles, and gophers, and in turn becoming food for other predators. This species mates in spring and bears young anytime from August through October. Rattlesnakes are among the few types of snakes that keep their eggs in their bodies until hatched, so the babies are born live, rather than left to develop in eggs. Baby rattlesnakes are just as poisonous as adult snakes, and potentially more dangerous, since they can’t control their venom (they also don’t yet have rattles). About 25% of all bites are “dry,” with no venom injected. Rattlesnakes are venomous, meaning they can bite and inject venom, not poisonous, which means that you will be harmed by eating them.

Description: A powerful, heavy-bodied, venomous pit viper (pits on the side of the head sense heat of food items), with a thin neck and a large triangular head. The pupils are elliptical and vertical; the scales are keeled (each has a lengthwise ridge). The base color is variable, matching the environment, with blotches on the front 2/3 of the body, changing to dark bars for the rear third. Adults are usually 15 – 36 inches long, sometimes up to 48 inches. Rattle of scales or “beads” may not be present in young snakes or can be lost by older snakes. When a snake sheds its skin, a new bead is added to the rattle, although most rattles are about 8 beads long due to breakage. The snakes inhabit rocky grasslands, streambeds and forests.

Similar Snake: The Pacific Gophersnake resembles the rattlesnake, but has a thinner head and no rattle. It will, however, mimic a rattlesnake if threatened, flattening its head, hissing, and rattling its tail.

The best rule to follow when hiking in rattlesnake country is just to stay on the trail and out of the way of rattlesnakes.

The likelihood of a bite or even a sighting is very low, and more people die from bee stings every year than rattlesnakes bites. It is against the rules to remove or harm any wildlife in Bidwell Park. Here are some guidelines to follow to avoid rattlesnake encounters.

Preventing Rattlesnake bites (from California Dept. of Fish and Game):

  • Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through wild areas. Wear hiking boots.
  • When hiking, stick to well-used trails and wear over-the-ankle boots and loose-fitting long pants. Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.
  • Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see, and avoid wandering around in the dark. Step ON logs and rocks, never over them, and be especially careful when climbing rocks or gathering firewood. Check out stumps or logs before sitting down.
  • Never grab “sticks” or “branches” while swimming in lakes and rivers. Rattlesnakes can swim.
  • Never hike alone. Always have someone with you who can assist in an emergency.
  • Do not handle a freshly killed snake, it can still inject venom.
  • Teach children early to respect snakes and to leave them alone. Children are naturally curious and will pick up snakes.

snake-head_newWhat to do in the event of a snake bite:
The first thing to do if bitten is to stay calm. Generally, the most serious effect of a rattlesnake bite to an adult is local tissue damage, which needs to be treated. The venom is hemotoxic, used by the snake to digest its food, so it destroys tissue and degenerates organs. Children, because they are smaller, are in more danger if they are bitten. Get to a doctor as soon as possible, but stay calm. Frenetic, high-speed driving places the victim at greater risk of an accident and increased heart rate. If the doctor is more than 30 minutes away, keep the bite below the heart, and then try to get to the doctor as quickly as possible.

Cal Poison cautions that improper applications of ice or a tourniquet can block arterial circulation, which can result in gangrene or an eventual loss of the limb. Cutting can cause excessive bleeding, and sucking venom from the wound can cause infection, making treatment more difficult. So it’s best to let the doctor handle it.

Enjoy the Park, and respect the wildlife that shares it!

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