Shy Serpent of Overlook Mountain
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
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
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.
Articles by Miriam Sanders