Could You Have a Rattlesnake in Your Yard?

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As a kid growing up in Texas, I developed a healthy fascination with snakes. Knowing this fact, and understanding that we lived among a variety of poisonous snakes, my father taught me at a young age that the best tool to protect me against them was between my ears. While I may not be in Texas anymore, I still live in snake country, as do all of us in the Coachella Valley, and what I learned then is still true today.

No formula can completely predict if and when a rattlesnake will appear at your house. While that realization may seem unsettling, I point it out as a reminder that the best way for you to understand the chance of seeing one in your yard is to learn why, when, and how it is likely to get there. With that goal in mind, here are a few facts about rattlesnakes you may want to know.

1. THEY HAVE TO EAT.

Rattlesnakes tend to go where they can find food, which is primarily small mammals, especially rodents. If you want to deter rattlesnakes from your yard, keep the rodent population down.

Common rodent attractants include fallen fruit on the ground, seed litter beneath bird feeders, pet food left outside, open compost or trash containers, and piles of wood or debris.

2. THEY DON’T SEEK ATTENTION.

As frightening as they seem to many people, rattlesnakes always prefer to avoid interacting with us, as well as our pets. They only strike larger animals when they are provoked, cornered, or surprised. Because of their reclusive nature, rattlesnakes are more likely to hang out in your yard if they can find suitable places to hide. While I have known cases where they simply tucked themselves into the corner of a building, they are usually going to be found under something, like a low, overhanging rock, a dense or overgrown plant, or debris. If you can’t or don’t want to remove such features from your yard, you could consider restricting your dog’s access to areas where they exist.

3. THEY CAN’T, OR WON’T, GO JUST ANYWHERE.

I’m sure it’s obvious that if your yard backs up to a wash, canyon, or open desert, you are more likely to see rattlesnakes. It’s just a shorter trip for them, and they tend to avoid crossing large open spaces. They don’t like to be exposed and will usually only go into areas if they can remain under cover for most of the trip. They can swim if they have to, but they are not very good climbers. A smooth three-foot wall or fine mesh fence can keep them out if: (a) there are no nearby plants or other structures to boost them, (b) it extends a few inches underground, and (c) it has no gaps. If you are lucky enough to live next to native desert, you might consider creating a protected pet area in your yard by installing an appropriate rattlesnake fence. A quick Internet search can provide some simple instructions on how to build one.

4. THEY CAN’T CONTROL THEIR BODY TEMPERATURE.

Like all reptiles, rattlesnakes are dependent on their environment for warming and cooling themselves. This feature strongly influences when and where they move about. They only function well between 70 and 90 °F. During cooler months, they hide away and go into a state of inactivity, and we rarely see them at all. When the weather warms sufficiently (usually around the end of February), they become more active. As the season progresses, you might see them in the morning and early evening, but they tend to hide at night to preserve heat, and during the hotter parts of the day to stay cool. In the summer when their environment gets hottest, they become more active at night and spend the day hiding in shade. As the summer fades, they resume morning and evening activity until winter returns. Knowing these temperature effects can help predict what time of day or year they might appear in your yard, and when to be cautious about allowing pets unsupervised access to it.

The biologist in me recognizes that rattlesnakes are simply living their lives and really don’t want anything to do with us. They are just responding to natural forces. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a danger to our pets. Fortunately, for many households the chance of an encounter is small, but for others it may be a real concern. After all, snakes are a normal part of our desert environment. Managing the risk to your pet, therefore, may depend largely on your ability to interpret and manipulate your own individual living space.

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