Rattlesnake Racket

It’s true that the bright waxing moon in the cold winter sky shouldn’t evoke visions of vipers. Yet, go figure, a long persecuted New England snake is indeed this week’s unseasonable topic.

Snakes, in January? you ask, bemusedly scratching at your temple with your index finger.”

Yeah, snakes in January. Better still, Timber Rattlesnakes — those venomous vipers of colonial New England lore that once sent shivers up the spine of many a man, woman and child working around the wood pile or traipsing barefoot through the summer woods back in the day. Nowadays, you can still find this feared, misunderstood, endangered reptile locally around the talus slopes of Mounts Tom and Tekoa south and west of here. But when’s the last time you heard of a rattler sighting anywhere in Franklin County? Likely never, and for good reason. According to an information sheet published by MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP), rattlesnakes no longer exist in this county, which may or may not be true … probably not.

Common sense’ll tell you that a man could probably cross the path of a rattler if he went searching in remote pockets of local, stony mountains, even around the cliffs of the Sugarloafs north and south, or maybe rocky outcroppings and treacherous upland rock slides on Mt. Toby or high in our western hills — places like, a wild guess, the western slope of High Ridge overlooking foreboding Guinea Gulch and the beautiful Conway State Forest.

The indigenous people who greeted the first European explorers to New England were often adorned in clothing that displayed traces of our native rattlesnake, be it decorative skins worn like belts around the waist, bands for the arms or legs, or long, sharp, ominous fangs strung into a string of beads or onto clothing worn ceremonially or for formal wear. So, it’s a fact that this poisonous snake was here, and not uncommon, either, until Euro-Americans decided they were dastardly demons that must be extirpated, the sooner the better. Thus bounties were offered and the wanton destruction began, bringing about a rapid decline that now borders on extinction. Yes, much like the native folks who wore their skins and fangs with pride as symbols of the underworld, from the colonial perspective, the only good rattlesnake was a dead one, and killing them was encouraged.

So now, get a load of this — wild but true — there’s currently a MassWilfdlife proposal supported by respected wildlife biologist Tom French, Division of Fisheries and Wildlife assistant director for NHESP, to establish a wild population of Timber Rattlers on a large, unspecified Quabbin Reservoir island. Although the proposal has not yet been approved, it seems likely that it will be, given the NHESP responsibility to protect and enhance endangered species in the name of conservation. Plus there’s added incentive to rebuild our rattlesnake population now, before it diminishes even further: never before has there been a population decline close to that of the past 30 years. No question, it’s time to act.

I got wind of the proposal more than a month ago from a reliable North Quabbin Region source, who, frankly, I doubted a little bit. Yes, during a telephone conversation with always-affable Millers River Fisherman’s Association founder Peter Mallet of New Salem, this country character questioned the wisdom of stocking rattlesnakes on the Quabbin, remote island or not, and claimed that the North Quabbin Trails Association was up in arms about it.

“I know it sounds crazy,” Mallet gasped, “but this is real. I got it straight from a game warden. Don’t these people know rattlesnakes can swim?”

Well, in fact they do. French-generated information about the proposal furnished by MassWildlife Information and Education guru Marion Larson acknowledges that rattlesnakes are good swimmers but speculates that despite this ability, a small, isolated population would have no reason to leave a secluded, paradisiacal Quabbin island believed to have supported historic rattlesnake populations before reservoir flooding dramatically changed the landscape. Although that may well be true, it is far from absolute, especially if after many decades overpopulation stimulates forced migration in all directions.

Something gleaned from the short narrative written in favor of the Quabbin proposal that’s likely misleading is the declaration that “all of the documented bites from wild snakes since colonial times can be counted on one hand, and there have been no life-threatening encounters since colonial times on record.” Although this may be true, the words to focus on are “documented” and “on record,” both highly rhetorical. The question is: How many rattlesnake bites from the 17th and 18th centuries were “documented,” that is formally reported and recorded by town, county and/or state officials? The answer is likely few. And to claim that no one ever died from a snake bite is at best weak. Cursory research of the colonial period reveals many reports of rattlesnakes and a fear of snake bites to people and livestock alike.

Indians were experts at treating poisonous snake bites. The first move was to open the skin with a knife and suck the blood from the wound at the point where the fangs penetrated the body. Then they had wild-plant antidotes and salves or powders to counter the effects of whatever poison remained. But it is highly unlikely that no New England pioneers from the wilds of early uninhabited pockets of New England succumbed to snake bites. Though probably not prevalent, random death had to occur unless accompanied by Indian scouts or maybe equipped with a pouch of herbal remedies learned from them.

Because rattlesnakes are now an Endangered Species, it is absolutely illegal to kill them. The MassWildlife map pinpointing these snakes’ current range show them present in Berkshire, Hampshire and Hampden counties and south of Boston in the Blue Hills region. They can be identified by their triangular head and narrow neck but can vary in color from jet black to sulfur-yellow with black, brown, or rust-colored blotches separated by cross bands on the back and sides. What distinguishes the Timber Rattler from other rattlesnakes is their lack of stripes or bands on the head and face, and their solid black tails. Adults measure 3 to 5 feet in length, not a pretty sight to someone who comes upon one unexpectedly.

According to the NHESP information pamphlet, Timber Rattlers are most often found in mountainous terrain characterized by second-growth deciduous or coniferous forest, with step ledges, rock slides, and large rodent populations. They are sometimes found in pine barrens and wetlands, and may occasionally be found in fields and pastures.

Our warming climate could make the Northeast even more favorable habitat to Timber Rattlers, which hibernate in caves and stone crevices from mid-October to mid-April.

But is stocking them a good idea? The jury’s still out.

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