Driftless Terroir: Rugged Bluffs Still Home to Timid Timber Rattlers

Timber rattlesnakes move very little and are noiseless unless disturbed. This protected species favors open bluffs populated by red cedars and rocky outcroppings.

Dubbed a timber snake, the alarming summertime drone-like jangle of this Driftless native is more likely to be heard in open bluffs populated by red cedars and rocky outcroppings than in deep woods.

Chances are, however, that most times hikers and former persecuting snake hunters walked past this reptile, while it remained silent and undetected.

The “Snakes of Wisconsin” booklet notes of timber rattlesnakes that “you would be fortunate just to see one.”

In the timbers’ habitat, small mammals unsuspectingly ply for food themselves, while this reptile can sense their presence by their high mammalian body temperature. The usually quiet, legally protected, venomous timber rattlesnake detects the prey’s presence as they nibble seed pods or wild clover blooms.

An alarming jangle gives notice before the snake strikes out about half its length.

Poor eyesight, a molecule-collecting tongue, heat pits, nostrils and elliptically pupiled eyes work their astonishing capabilities. While airborne chemicals are transferred to a mouth roof gland by the forked tongue, a signal is sent on to the snake’s brain.

Without much notice, venom is surgically placed in a chipmunk’s body through two hollow, needle-like fangs. The venom kills the prey and immediately begins a digestion process while the snake engages in swallowing the small animal.

This snake can strike out about half its length, suggesting a few feet for most individuals.

Some members of the population do move from the buffs where their winter dens are located to deciduous forests and farmers’ fertile terroir. Summer food is sometimes more abundant here.

For those gatherers with a stable heart, a good supply of refreshing water, and a desire to see, watch, photograph, maybe document or simply stare at an animal so feared, the magnetism is too great to pass up. We simply must see them in their wild habitat and then walk away with a better understanding of a snake often feared but more likely frightened more by the experience, too.

With researchers and former snake hunters as guides, I’ve experienced the thrill of seeing a live rattler blend into the surrounding Driftless terroir.

Provoking a timber can bring on a different reaction. Walking away almost always works best. When close to a home, a garden hose often sends a rattler “back home.” Retired Department of Natural Resources snake expert Bob Hay suggests the snake may recall the water experience and not return. A different individual may show up, however.

Most likely questers are looking somewhere along a bluff near the Mississippi or Wisconsin rivers in Wisconsin’s west.

There are still a few former snake “hunters” who no longer pursue snakes, but who may act as guides. I’ve used these individuals to get photographs and experience the thrill of seeing a live rattler blend into the surrounding Driftless terroir.

A molecule-collecting tongue, heat pits, nostrils and elliptically shaped eyes locate prey. Its two fangs deliver venom.

Several years ago I followed a researcher who was capturing timber ratters, surgically implanting transmitters into the reptile, and then releasing the snakes to live out their lives as naturally as possible.

From time-to-time, the researcher would locate a snake to determine what habitat it was using and whether it had gone into or come out of a winter den. Those were exciting excursions, especially when the scientist would warn, “He’s within a few feet of us but I can’t see him yet.” Of course not all the timbers were carrying transmitters; most weren’t, and that added to the appreciation of how camouflaged a 3-foot snake can be.

There are known populations of gravid female rattlesnakes who use locations for sunning during the summertime. When the sun comes up high enough, one or more snakes may position itself and thermo-regulate by moving in and out of vegetation shadows.

These snakes move very little, are noiseless unless disturbed, and can provide hours of what some have compared to watching paint dry, but never does. Looking close with binoculars to see the snake’s head, elliptical pupils, nostrils and heat pits is more like spilling a gallon of paint while falling off a 20-foot ladder.

The people I have experienced showing their knowledge of timber rattlers have never released an inkling of wanting to destroy the animal, or even provoke it. Yet, many decades earlier, a few did.

One old-timer I knew, in bygone days, handled and captured these snakes occasionally. He did so with an L-shaped rod, not a long pliers-like clamp. Once he slid the snake into position, he’d gently hold its head down with the L portion of the rod and then grab the two sides (not top and bottom) of the snake’s head, lift it into the air and drop it into a white pillow case. Why white? Most pillow cases are white.

It was interesting to note that the old-timer snake whisperer knew a great deal about rattlers and so did the researcher. But some of their knowledge was different and each was willing to share, and then respect the other’s information.

Rattlers give birth to live young instead of laying eggs like bullsnakes and eight other Wisconsin snakes.

There is much to learn and experience about Wisconsin snakes without taking them into possession.

Wisconsin is home to another venomous snake, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. The massasauga is an endangered species, while the timber rattler is protected. This snake’s habitat is far different than the timber’s.

Jerry Davis is a freelance outdoors writer, biology professor emeritus at UW-LaCrosse and an Honorary Fellow in the Botany Department at UW-Madison. He lives in Barneveld and can be reached at sivadjam@mhtc.net.