Strange Bedfellows

A rattler it wasn’t, but still, how would like to find one in your lingerie drawer?

Yes, it seems dangerous-looking reptiles are lurking in my neighborhood. That’s what I’m chasing this week. Just another interesting little tale that piqued my interest after arriving as an email tip from a friend and neighbor. Why? For one thing because of a recent personal encounter, with what I’m not certain, just up the road. You can’t make it up. How is it that this stuff just seems to find its way to my doorstep? No complaints. Stories like this write themselves.

I’ll start with the email, which arrived Monday afternoon and went like this (names and locations excluded): “Info came my way today that three timber rattlers were taken by Fish & Game personnel recently at (a neighborhood) estate. Workers found them while fixing a foundation around a shed/barn? Did you know? Check it out.”

Hmmmmm? I knew the estate. Pass it daily. But what’s really interesting, probably just a coincidence if you believe in such things, is that historical research on an unrelated subject had led me straight to that old farm recently. Now this.

Intrigued by the spicy rumor, I figured I’d swing through the driveway on the way into work to see if the visit drew or caught the owner outside. No such luck, just a tabby cat on the porch and a happy pappy dog trotting down to greet me, friendly tail wagging. I stopped my truck, opened the door just long enough to pet the dog between the ears, noticed no activity in the house and departed unfulfilled. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I didn’t want to be a supper-time pest, had time to pursue it in the morning. But, just out of curiosity, I from afar scanned the stone foundation of an outbuilding on the way out and found it tidy indeed for stonework of its age. Yes, a likely candidate for recent renovation.

At that point, having noticed the neat, clean facing of that exposed stone foundation, my wheels started spinning to a low hum. Perhaps the rattlesnake rumor was true. Plus I kept mentally traipsing back a few days to that personal encounter with something I never saw but knew for sure was there. Young Springer Spaniel pal Chubby had alerted me to its presence during our daily walk down a familiar game trail at the point of an escarpment that leads down to a narrow marsh flooded by beavers. It was Friday or Saturday, I can’t recall which, hot and sunny, late morning. About a third of the way down the brushy path, getting thicker by the day due to fresh spring growth, Chuby-Chub, maybe 20 feet ahead of me, stopped, froze statuesque — nose elevated, ears perked — and chose to skirt whatever it was he smelled, heard or both by walking a tight little five-foot detour loop to the left. Whatever it was, he wanted no part of it. Me neither. But, curious, I carefully approached the site and used my chestnut crook cane to investigate the ground by pushing small, leafy, infant beech seedlings to the side, Chubby already standing chest-deep, drinking beaver-dam overflow below as foot-free mother Lily trotted down to join him. Although my quick probe  revealed nothing, I was convinced it was a snake. Because animals have a sixth sense for danger, I pay attention. So, when I heard this neighborhood rattlesnake rumor, that’s why it really grabbed a hold of me. Maybe a rattler had persuaded young Chubby to change his path down that natural, constricted earthen ramp.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a little skittish upon returning to the site the next few days, walking down through the small marsh between two agricultural plots with my four-legged friends, me crossing the water over a large fallen tree trunk. I don’t believe an observer would have noticed caution in my gait, but let’s just say that minor tangles and sapling slaps across the back of my naked calves startled me a little more than usual, not to mention the sight of thin, dead, fallen limbs dangling in the sumacs. Yes, those dangling particles attracted closer inspection than usual as I snaked (no pun intended) my way through that familiar little wetland strip. Once I poked through the marsh into open Sunken Meadow, it was always clear sailing, no more heebie-jeebies for the remainder of my circuitous riverside ramble back to the truck.

Although I can’t say I’ve have ever considered owning a pet snake, I wouldn’t call myself ophidiophobic. I remember handling garden snakes as a kid before witnessing a friend getting bitten by a big ornery one. That instilled in me a healthy respect for snakes, which still give me the creeps. My youthful fears only intensified as I wandered out and discovered more threatening-looking serpents on my travels up and down the Indian trails scaling the red North Sugarloaf cliffs. It was worse on the way up, when I’d reach for a scrub-oak or an outcropping a ledge to pull myself up only to meet face-to-face with an unfriendly-looking outstretched snake adorned in colorful geometric bands baking in the summer sun. To this day I can’t say what kind of snakes they were, but like Chubby-Chub-Chub, I never pestered them. No, I always did my best to avoid them. Yet I can honestly say that such close encounters never discouraged me from returning to the scene, just taught me to be aware. Never in my recollection did one of those snakes act aggressively toward me, though, which makes sense because I never bothered them. But let’s not digress, back to the present.

When I returned home from a Tuesday walk, wanting to chase the rumor, I immediately called the neighbor who, rumor had it, discovered those rattlesnakes at her historic Greenfield Meadows home. When I told her why I was calling and admitted skepticism, she chuckled and said that, in fact, what I had heard was pretty accurate. Yes, as it turns out, the three snakes were not discovered by contractors working on an outbuilding but instead by the woman herself on April 10 and 11. First, upon walking into her office, she found one critter right out in the open, coiled neatly on a printer shelf. When she and a colleague witnessed the snake rattling its tail, she phoned police and a temporary animal-control officer was dispatched as she waited, snapping off photos with her cell phone. When the public servant arrived on the scene, he observed the four-foot snake and, yup, identified it as a rattlesnake before removing it from the building and releasing it over the bank into the woods, because, you know, rattlesnakes are a protected endangered species.

It gets better. Next day, with the harrowing experience sort of behind her, lo, upon opening a desk drawer in the same office, there lay an identical three-foot snake stretched out among the contents. Convinced she was dealing with yet another rattler, the woman was brave indeed, eventually removing it from the drawer with long-handled pruning shears (I call them loppers) and taking it outside. Concerned that there may be more big, menacing reptiles lurking, she called the contractor who had performed the carriage-house-to-office transition and asked if he’d please investigate further. He arrived on the scene the next day and, sure enough, removed a third snake from a warm place near a pilot light to a gas fireplace, end of story. Well, except that the property owner says she had seen a large snake colored and marked the same as those in her office while doing yard-work last fall. She figures it and others must have hibernated in a stone-foundation pocket and found a way inside upon awaking from their long winter nap.

After recounting the tale and checking for dates in her email messages, the proprietor emailed me two photos she had taken, the first titled “office visitor,” the second “in the drawer.” I promptly forwarded “in the drawer” to Ralph Taylor, MassWildlife’s Connecticut Valley District manager, who viewed it and quickly replied that it was a harmless Eastern milk snake.

“That’s typical milk-snake behavior,” he chortled. “They seem to like people’s homes and are often confused with rattlesnakes because they, and black water snakes, will shake their tails like a rattler when nervous.”

Taylor says his office answers calls from concerned citizens who find milk snakes on cellar rafters of their homes and barns. He said the snakes are docile creatures that eat rats and mice and are thus attracted to cellars, crawl spaces and woodsheds. Taylor said the loamy bottomland location of the Greenfield incidents makes it an unlikely place to find rattlesnakes, but not milk snakes. Which isn’t to suggest there are no Franklin County rattlesnakes. Anyone who’s studied local history dating back to the first two centuries of settlement knows New England Indians tribes used ominous rattlesnake skins ceremoniously and displayed their fangs in jewelry. Accounts of early settlers depict rattlesnakes as quite common dating from the colonial period well into the 19th century, their range extending far north of here, into the Green, White and Adirondack Mountains, and deep across upper New York State. Given the factors of global warming and Northeastern reforestation, rattlesnakes could indeed be on the comeback trail locally. In fact, if you went hunting for them tomorrow, you could find them with little effort. Taylor identified the Holyoke, Mt. Tom and Tekoa ranges as local hot-spot sites, saying the most likely place to find them is on sun-splashed talus slopes composed of stone, ledge and shale. Rattlers also seek out the warm, manmade concrete floors and platforms poured to anchor mountaintop cell towers and windmills. Although humans are likely to survive rattlesnake bites, Taylor said their venom is a protein destroyer that initiates a flesh-eating process and causes permanent damage. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are nothing to fool with.

My guess is that Chubby was skirting a Milk Snake that day and, even though they’re harmless, I can’t say I blame him. In fact, on my way into bed after work Tuesday night, I’ll admit to having an extra little hop in my step upon jumping into bed after midnight. I’m sure that temporary phobia will pass. It’s just that the images and discussion were very fresh and creepy, our homes close and similarly constructed.

Milk snakes may be harmless, but I’d rather not crawl onto a heated mattress pad with one, thank you.

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