Aldona Bird, Columns/Opinion

Shaking up interest in rattlesnakes

Gold and blue, cardinals, rhododendrons and black bears are some of what we associate with our state. I just learned that our state reptile is the timber rattlesnake.

I’ve been wanting to learn more about timber rattlesnakes since attending a presentation about the population and tracking of rattlesnakes in a couple of local areas.

A few tidbits piqued my interest. It didn’t take much, as I am already fascinated by serpents in general. While some of my friends are repulsed by these reptiles, I’ve always been interested in them and their symbolism throughout history.

They’ve often represented fertility, creativity, temptation or sometimes evil, and in our United States history rattlesnakes represented peace but strength leading up to and during the Revolutionary War.

This animal can move swiftly and silently on flat ground and through tall weeds, up and down trees and can swim. They also help control rodent populations and rarely threaten humans.

According to the WV Department of Natural Resources (Snakes of West Virginia resource), “From 1969 to 1992 only four people in the Mountain State have died from rattlesnake bites while in the wild.”

While rattlesnakes do carry poisonous venom, they rarely use it, unless seriously provoked.

When they do bite, they control the amount of venom injected. Even baby rattlers have venom and ability to control it. According to the same article by WV DNR, about half of timber rattlesnake bites are dry (no venom at all).

I’d thought all snakes hatched from unattended eggs. While some snakes do lay eggs, other snake species have live births. Timber rattlesnakes give birth to their young in a sack which immediately breaks. An average litter size includes about six baby snakes. Recent research suggests timber rattlesnake mothers spend the first week or two with their infants, guarding them. The young follow their mothers back to den to overwinter at least for their first cold season.

But let’s back up to some other interesting things I learned about these cool creatures. Females don’t procreate until they are 6 to 8 years old, and then only once every few years.

They mate in late summer Females store the sperm until the following spring, when they emerge from their dens and become pregnant. Pregnant rattlesnakes spend most of the summer on sunny rocks, to keep warm enough for the embryos to develop properly.

Warmth is such a priority that pregnant females often don’t move much at all, even to find food, while males and non-pregnant females will travel miles over the summer, before returning to their dens in the fall.

Like other snakes, they shed their skin regularly, sometimes multiple times per summer. Each time they shed their skin they gain a rattle – but rattles also wear and break off so their age can’t be determined by counting the knobs on the ends of their tails.

Timber rattlesnakes often grow to three feet long, but some grow up to five feet long. Like other pit vipers, they have heat sensing pits in their heads, which enables them to sense their prey’s body heat even at night.

While I could wax poetic about these fascinating creatures, I will admire them from a safe distance, unlike the Appalachian Pentecostal churches whose members handle poisonous snakes to prove the presence of the Lord.

Ophiophobia and herpetophobia are common, and my column isn’t going to get anyone over their fears. But I hope some of these facts spark an interest for you too and haven’t given you the creeps!

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She explores possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email