Northern Pacific rattlesnake
Northern Pacific rattlesnake

Of the six or so species of snakes which might be encountered in the Cascadel area, only one is venomous. This is the northern Pacific rattlesnake, a sub-species of the western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) not to be confused with the western diamondback(Crotalus atrox) which is not found in our area. The harmless mountain kingsnake is sometimes erroneously mistaken for a coral snake. There are no corals in California.


Rattlesnakes are not as dangerous or as frightening as most people think. They are, actually, shy and secretive animals who choose to avoid confrontations with people and are seldom seen. Rattlesnakes deserve caution - but not the fear and loathing they generally get. With a few precautions and a bit of common sense you can safely hike or work in areas where rattlesnakes occur.

Rattlesnakes are ectothermic(cold-blooded) creatures. They strive to maintain a certain body temperature, which means that their behavior varies according to the temperatures of seasons and times of the day. To keep warm, rattlesnakes come out during warm hours of the day and sun themselves on rocks and other open areas. Occasionally, during the warmest hours of particularly hot days, they'll rest under rocks or shrubs to keep from getting too warm. They'll usually be under a rock or in a hole during cool hours of the evening and early morning.

Each time a rattler sheds its skin it adds one segment to the rattle. Because they can shed 2 or 3 times each year, the number of rattles is NOT indicative of age. Rarely are there more than 10 or 12 rattles because the outer ones wear and break off.

The loreal gland is a heat sensitive structure located between the eye and the nostril. With it, they can locate their warm-blooded prey. It is this "pit" which classifies the rattler as a "pit viper."

The forked tongue is harmless and is used to "taste" the air helping the snake to locate prey, sense danger or seek a mate.

Rattlesnakes have been on this earth quite a bit longer than humans and serve a very important function in the natural cycle of things. Without them, for example, we just might be over-run with rodents. Eighty percent of a rattlesnake's diet is made up of rodents and, in any given year, they might eat as much as 25% of the rodent population in a given area.

Rattlesnakes are shy and do not attack unless directly threatened. The most likely ways to encounter a rattlesnake are while clearing brush around buildings or by moving piles of wood.

Rattlesnakes can only strike a distance equal to 1/2 their own length - about two feet for a large adult of our local northern Pacific. This makes a bite easy to avoid as long as you stay away from them!


Many people are bitten by rattlesnakes because they aren't aware of their surroundings. Common snake bites occur because someone stepped over or on a rattlesnake, or sat on or near one. Anyone walking outside should keep his eyes open, and watch where they walk or sit.

Do not place your hand on a rock ledge or outcropping above eye site that a snake may be resting on. Be very careful when picking up boards or other objects that are lying on the ground.

Always wear shoes or boots. Boots and long pants with loose cuffs can provide you with a great deal of protection.

Keep dogs on a leash and control them. Dogs will provoke a snake, almost guaranteeing that the snake with strike either the dog or the person.

Remember that harmless kingsnakes and gopher snakes vibrate their tail when alarmed. If in dry leaves this can sound a lot like rattlesnakes rattling.

Do not ever pick up a venomous snake - even a "dead" one could give you a painful surprise. Reflex actions persists for several minutes, even in a severed head.

When confronted by a rattlesnake while hiking, remain calm and try to back away slowly and carefully. If you hear a rattlesnake, stay calm and try to locate the snake's position before moving away slowly. Donít panic and fall off a cliff!

The best thing for someone who has been bitten by a rattlesnake is get to a doctor's office immediately. Most important, remain calm. You'll be worse off if you run full speed to the car, because the venom will travel through your body quickly if you move fast or panic.

If bitten, the old recommendations of putting a tourniquet or ice on a snakebite, or cutting into the wound, are out of date. DO NOT follow these recommendations.

If bitten by a rattlesnake, call 911 or a neighbor immediately. DO NOT TRY TO DRIVE TO A MEDICAL FACILITY. If bitten while far away from a phone or if a cell phone is not available to use to call for emergency help, while hiking for example, send a friend for help and move slowly toward the direction of help.

25% of adult Rattlesnake bites are dry, with no venom injected.
If you are unsure if you have been bitten, look for these signs and symptoms.
Puncture marks (one or two)
Swelling at the area of the bite
Pain, tingling or burning at the area of the bite
Bruising and/or discoloration
Nausea, weakness, and lightheadedness
Difficulty breathing

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 8,000 people a year receive venomous bites in the United States, but only 10 to 12 victims die. Some of the fatalities were untreated for religious reasons and others may have had prior medical conditions.

Their bite is rarely fatal but is usually extremely painful. All rattlesnake bites are treated as requiring urgent care, and the victim needs to be transported to a medical facility at once. Keep the victim as quiet as possible. Do not try to kill or capture the snake that bit the victim. More people are bitten trying to kill rattlesnakes than by all other types of encounters combined. Do not try any of the old remedies like cutting the bite and sucking out the venom, or using a snakebite kit, or using a car battery to run a current through the affected area. Your best bet is a doctor and anti-venin.

The American Red Cross recommends you take the following steps:

Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart. If the bite is on the hand or arm remove any rings, watches or tight clothing. Seek immediate medical attention.

If You find yourself more than 30 minutes from immediate medical attention you may have to apply some more extreme first aid measures. The American Red Cross offers the following information - but recommends you only take the following measures in a true emergency.

Wrap a bandage two to four inches above the bite. This may help slow venom. The bandage should not cut off blood flow from a vein or artery. The bandage should be loose enough to slip a finger beneath it.

A suction device may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound WITHOUT making cuts. Suction devices are often included in commercial snakebite kits. Do NOT make an incision around or into the wound!

Return to top of page: 
Compiled and written by H. M. Fischer