Pages Navigation Menu

The science site for Baby Boomers

Rattlesnakes in the Sonoran Desert: Close Encounters With The Venomous Kind

Diamondback rattlesnake
Credit: Shutterstock

Spring weather is here in the Sonoran Desert and, although I haven’t seen any, I hear that the rattlesnakes are out. The Sonoran Desert community rattlesnake watch (our friends and neighbors) warn us as soon as the first snake comes out looking for a meal after a long winter’s brumation (the cold-blooded reptile version of hibernation).

Rattlesnake Classification

According to the world class, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, these are representative of the species we see in our part of the world:

  • western diamondback (Crotalus atrox)
  • mohave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus)
  • tiger rattlesnake (Crotalus tigris)
  • blacktail rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus)
  • sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes)
  • Order: Squamata
  • Family: Viperidae (moveable front-fang venomous snakes)
  • Spanish names: víbora de cascabel (rattlesnake), víbora de cuernitos (sidewinder)

My First Rattlesnake Sighting

Mojave rattlesnake.
Credit: Shutterstock

My first rattlesnake sighting (other than seeing snakes in a zoo-like setting) was a few years ago when we first moved to the Tucson area. I was sweeping the courtyard in front of our home when I heard my husband say, “Stop! Don’t move!”

He directed my attention to a diamondback rattler under a casual sofa – one of my favorite places to sit. Before I could prevent it, my husband had called a neighbor and had the snake dispatched. Now we know better.

Our current regimen, a much better plan, is to have a snake removal expert who lives less then 10 minutes away relocate the snakes. This brave person takes the snakes to another location in the desert. I’ve never asked him where he puts them.

Since we’ve lived here, we’ve had four or five snakes relocated. All of them were the beautiful western diamondback with the lovely black and white striped pattern above the tail.

Most of the diamondbacks I’ve encountered seemed, basically, to be shy. They didn’t strike immediately, but alerted, rattled, then drew back and hid when possible. I once saw a snake near our hay pile. I was less then three feet away when it rattled.

That was the first time I’d heard a rattlesnake rattle (other than in the movies).

At first the sound was like the rustle of leaves. It picked up quickly until it sounded like an agitated Geiger counter. Once you hear the sound in person, you’ll never forget it. If you want to experience this sound (without the snake encounter) check out this Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum link.

One night, right outside our courtyard gate, I encountered a rather rotund, short rattlesnake that wasn’t at all shy. Stretched out across the flagstone walkway, it looked at me and began a robust rattle. I got a hose and sprayed it at which point the snake glided away.

Finny, an Australian Shepherd Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

By its look and behavior, I believe it might have been the more aggressive, more venomous Mojave rattlesnake. These snakes are thicker, shorter and hunt at night. I haven’t seen him (or her) since this encounter.


Rattlesnakes and Pets Don’t Mix

Blaze, a feral Sahuarita horse. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

We’ve also seen rattlesnakes during our horseback rides out in the desert. It’s so hard to spot them. Often they’ll be coiled at the base of a cholla cactus near the trail. Once in a while they’ll rattle, then strike out. So far fangs have never met horseflesh.

Horses (and dogs) are sometimes victims of rattlesnake bite. Often it’s a bite to the nose of a curious equine or canine. Our vets assure us that the rattlesnake shots we’ve given our dogs would minimize any reaction.

If a horse is bitten on the nose, it’s usually very treatable, as long as the airway remains unobstructed. It’s not a bad idea, I’m told, to keep a couple of short lengths of tubing around. They’re handy to keep those nostrils from swelling closed. You stick them into the nostrils, I guess, then call the vet.

In spite of the venomous creatures we live with, I love our desert paradise. We don’t see snakes very frequently. A little bit of watchfulness and a few tips are all you need to survive quite well in the desert.