The Shy Serpent of Overlook Mountain

One sultry July afternoon, a hiker climbs on the southern slope of Overlook Mountain. He pauses for breath, and notices movement in a pile of leaves directly before him. It is fortunate that he does not tread on that pile, for it hides a large, poisonous snake, the timber rattler!
The timber rattler's beautiful skin is patterned in such a way that it provides him excellent camouflage in the leaves. His back may be bright yellow, gray, or brown, marked with dark brown or black chevrons. Sometimes, his back and markings are so dark he appears to be almost black. He may be over six feet long, and he is stocky as well.
Timber rattlers inhabit heavily forested, mountainous terrain with cliffs, ledges, stone outcroppings and nearby streams. The forests are primarily deciduous hardwoods. When settlers came to the Woodstock area, they soon became aware of the rattlers inhabiting the eastern and southern escarpments extending from behind the village of Catskill to Phoenicia. Overlook Mountain in particular had great populations! The noted historian Alf Evers, in his wonderful book Woodstock, A History of an American Town, states "from the opening of the first Overlook Mountain House in 1871, the presence of timber rattlesnakes on the mountain caused nervous people to stay away.... Each spring men killed emerging snakes at the great den on top of 'The Minister's Face'... Jager's Cave on Overlook had a very determined concentration of rattlesnakes." Lewis Hollow, on the southern slope, was home to many of the creatures. Today, they are occasionally seen at California Quarry and Raycliffe.
Rattlesnakes are members of the pit viper family. They have flattened, triangular heads which are twice the width of their necks. They have a pit on each side of their face between the eye and the nostril. These pits can sense the radiant heat of an animal passing by and thus help the snake locate warm-blooded prey or predator, even in the dark!
The rattlesnake's eyes have pupils that are vertically elliptical. These eyes afford poor vision and primarily detect motion. There are no ear openings, but the creature senses vibrations in the ground with his whole body. These vibrations inform the snake of the size, distance, and direction of an animal passing nearby.
People are sometimes frightened by the sight of a snake flicking his forked tongue in and out of his mouth. The harmless tongue is actually gathering scent and taste particles from the air.
Our rattlesnake's scientific name, Crotalus horridus, means "horrid castanet." This refers to the creature's "rattle" at the end of its tail. The rattle consists of loosely attached horny segments, each of which originally covered the tail tip. Each time the snake sheds his skin ( every year or two), these segments are not shed, but become part of the enlarging rattle!
When the snake senses a person's approach, it may slowly crawl away. If it feels threatened, it will coil and vibrate its rattle in the leaves. This produces a loud, insect-like buzzing which is a warning signal. Other snakes, such as the black rat snake or the milk snake, will rattle their tail tips in dry leaves to mimic the sound, hoping to be mistaken for the venomous rattler!
Rattlesnakes eat small mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice and shrews. They will also eat birds and eggs. These snakes have venom which they pump from poison glands through hollow fangs into the unfortunate prey. Their upper and lower jaws are hinged in such a way that they can spread apart widely, and their lower jaws move apart sideways! Their teeth point backwards to their throats. Their body walls and skin have elasticity. These adaptations make it possible for rattlesnakes to swallow surprisingly large animals. After a meal, the snakes may not eat for weeks.
In the fall, the snakes congregate in the vicinity of their dens. These are located in wooded, rocky ledges with southern exposures. The snakes bask on the rocks in the warm autumn sunshine. By the colder days of winter, they have assembled within the dens, below the frost line, to hibernate. A den may hold over a hundred rattlesnakes, accompanied by copperheads and other snake species!
In the spring, the snakes emerge to bask and hunt for food. Being cold-blooded creatures, they are most active during the warm day. They mate, then begin to disperse throughout the woods. In summer, the snakes become more active at night. When there's a drought, they may descend to lower elevations than where they are usually encountered, following their prey.
The baby rattlers are born live, in late August to mid-September. They are enclosed in a transparent membrane which is shed within moments. Each baby is about a foot long. It is fully developed, with hollow fangs, venom, and a tiny rattle segment called a button!
Timber rattlers are themselves preyed upon by hawks, owls, raccoons, foxes and coyotes. Their populations are in a severe decline today due to indiscriminate killing by humans, illegal collecting for the pet trade, and loss of habitat to human development. They are classified as "threatened" in New York State and it is illegal to murder them.
If you would wish to see a timber rattler at first hand, attend the upcoming Dutchess County Fair. They are displayed there as an exhibit located in front of a menagerie.


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