While on my Taconic traverse, I found myself walking among the root sprouts of chestnuts and thinking about rattlesnakes. The eastern timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, approaches the northern limit of its contiguous range in the southern Berkshires. To be sure, there are isolated populations to the north of us, where snakes are occasionally seen swimming from island to island in Lake George. A few pockets persist among the traprock ridges of Connecticut River Valley, and some rattlers still bask in sight of Boston. But these are remnants, the tattered margin of historic rattlesnake territory that once extended deep into northern New England.
To the Puritan mind, the New World wilderness was the Devil's country, and its serpents, like witches, were not suffered to live. The land "teemed with rattlesnakes" in numerous reports from Burgoyne's terrified Hessians on their march toward Saratoga. Countless towns across the Northeast have a "Rattlesnake Hill", but the resident snakes have been driven to extirpation by generations of hoe-wielding, Yankee St. Patricks.
It's hard for most of us to warm up to cold blooded species, especially venomous ones. Nothing sets the heart to racing quite like coming across a fat bodied pit viper, thick as your forearm, lying beside the trail or, God forbid, coiled in your flower bed. The school nurse at a local boarding school had that unnerving experience a couple of years back, but rather than a single rattlesnake, she encountered a mated pair in coiling congress. When someone from the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield arrived with a snake stick to return the amorous reptiles back to the forest, they went into the sack still conjoined and emerged in the same condition: all without once emitting so much as a single rattle.
Timber rattlesnakes are surprisingly non-aggressive. Whether they were always this way, or the more assertive individuals were culled from the gene pool by shovel and club, is an open question. The preferred response of a timber rattlesnake to an unknown situation is not to draw attention to itself. Rather than announce its presence by rattling, it will usually behave like those people in the Python sketch "trying not to be seen", albeit with more skill and success at hiding in shrubbery.
Each year in the United States, there are approximately 8,000 venomous snake bites reported. Of these, at least 3,000 are the result of handling and harassment. At least 2000 bites are dry and contain no venom, and only 12-15 deaths from snakebite occur each year. The odds of seeing a timber rattlesnake, let alone being bitten by one, are remote for the vast number of us in the Northeast, even in rattlesnake country. Statistically, you are more likely to be one of those 8,000 who get bitten each year if you are young, male, intoxicated, and southern. I mean no slur against the good people of Dixie. It may make a difference if you are a snake handling Pentecostal or a bunch of good ole boys in the woods, but I have not read the complete statistical breakdown so cannot comment with authority. It's probably just that are just more species of venomous snakes in the southland, and more of them.
I've seen more timber rattlesnakes than most folks are likely to in the Berkshires, because it was once part of my job to figure out their conservation needs. I'm still a Nuisance Rattlesnake Responder (NRR) in New York and Massachusetts, and occasionally get the call to come remove a rattlesnake from harm's way. I've monitored den sites and surveyed parts of the Taconics where there ought to be dens based on the reports one hears of snakes far beyond their known dispersal range. I've seen numerous examples of the sand-colored yellow morph and the black and chestnut -colored diamond pattern too. I once found the skeletal remains of a rattlesnake, minus its head and tell-tail rattle. Usually, though, I can walk through a den site without ever seeing a snake.
There are probably fewer than 300 timber rattlesnakes at 1/2 dozen loosely connected den sites across the Taconic Plateau. Because timber rattlesnakes must return to their home den in the winter or freeze, it is a mistake to relocate too far from their dens those that wander into our backyards or other places frequented by humans. Some of the Berkshire dens have probably been used by rattlesnakes for thousands of years. Others are empty, cleaned out by poachers and one in particular: the infamous Cobra King himself, Rudy Komarek. Rudy is estimated to have single- handedly depleted at least 1/4 of all the historic dens sites in the Northeast and removed at least 4,000 rattlesnakes from the wild. He is wanted in several states, and there is a network of herpetologists who report on his movements and monitor those of their fellows whose fascination with rattlesnakes draws them over to the dark side.
Timber rattlesnakes have a hard enough time maintaining a stable population without having to contend with poaching and human fear and ignorance. They have poor reproductive success rates; a combination of high juvenile mortality and low population numbers. They reproduce on approximately a three-year cycle and gravid females do not eat at all in the seasons before giving birth. Their young are born alive in late summer and have a very small window of opportunity to catch a meal before hibernation.
There are plenty of natural constraints on timber rattlesnake populations. But aside from direct conflicts with humans, conservationists concerned about the survival of this species have to ask themselves; has anything else altered in their reproductive cycle that may also be contributing to their decline?
If eastern timber rattlesnakes reproduce on about a three year cycle, then one might assume that approximately 1/3 of the females of reproductive age would be gravid in any given year. However, researchers consistently observe that they find very little evidence of reproduction in some years, and then there will be a "pile up" year when most of the female snakes in a population give birth. Is this a new trend or an age-old reproductive strategy? The answer may lie in those blighted chestnut root sprouts I passed along the trail.
The central and transitional hardwood forests of the Northeast are missing a keystone tree. Prior to 1904 and the introduced fungus that decimated this species across its natural range, American Chestnut was a dominant species and an essential part of the ecology of these forests. Woodlands that are now predominantly oak, hickory and maple forests on the Taconic Plateau would once have been filled with mature chestnut trees.
We cannot begin to calculate the environmental consequences of losing this species. Our woods no longer contain standing chestnut snags with their generous cavities, and chestnut burrs do not disgorge their seeds to litter the forest floor. Many species used to depend on chestnuts as a major source of food, including the woodland small rodent population. Acorns are still available, but here may be the factor that has impacted rattlesnake reproduction.
Oaks have irregular acorn production. Their reproductive strategy is to produce modest numbers of acorns for a couple years, then put their energy into one, huge mast year when they drop more acorns than can possibly be consumed by those that feed on them. More small rodents survive the winter after a mast year when food is plentiful, and are available as prey for rattlesnakes the following summer when they are storing up fat reserves in preparation to mate. Mating rattlesnakes delay fertilization until after they emerge from hibernation. Therefore, one might predict a pile up year for juvenile rattlesnakes two years after a mast year for oaks.
But chestnuts were different. They produced regular amounts of seed every year, providing an important food source for the small rodent population but one which, by itself, would not cause large variation in their ability to overwinter from year to year. Perhaps when the chestnuts were still a major part of the forest ecology, timber rattlesnakes in our area reproduced in about the same percentages each year. I am aware of one researcher whose observations appear to support this hypothesis, but so much remains to be known about these snakes that for now I can merely speculate.
I did not see any rattlesnakes during this hike but I am comforted to know they are there. I saw chestnut saplings bravely reaching for the canopy among the blighted remains of their previous attempts, and take courage from their persistance.