Don’t Tread On Them

It is an otherworldly sound – it both belongs and doesn’t. At once it instills a fear that renders you motionless, but also attracts you with a deep rooted thrill fueled by adrenaline. Rattlesnake.

I remember my first wild Pennsylvania rattlesnake. Black phase female, basking on a rock not too far from her preferred crevice. Out of sight from the trail, but in a place that was filled with the aura of these incredible animals. She was fairly unconcerned with our presence, and we respectfully kept our distance, taking only a few photos.

Much maligned, these animals are often misunderstood. Too often viewed as threats, a menace, their population has been severely decreased. Through hunting, habitat loss, development, and roadkills, humans have definitely affected the rattlesnakes, and not often for the better.

People always tell stories. Rattlesnake stories are always dramatic. There’s the time an Audubon member brought rattlesnakes to a meeting.

From the original meeting minutes, I quote, “At the meeting at Washington Jr. High there was a little diversity of reactions when inquisitive eyes looked into the cage brought by Bob Hallquist. The women especially quickly withdrew. The cage contained two rattlesnakes.”

There are the stories about the bucket loads that Kinzua Dam construction workers scooped up.

Or the time I almost stepped on a yellow phase female who struck and missed my foot. (I think she missed on purpose). Rattlesnakes are favorite subjects for tales.

They are not graceful creatures, nor particularly beautiful.

(Some would beg to differ with me on the latter).

They are heavy bodied and have a much more stout appearance than other snakes.

Whereas being lithe and quick are characteristics of our most common serpentine residents, the rattlesnake exhibits none of that.

With good reason, as they have a built in defense mechanism.

Just as humans traded in agility, strength and stamina for tool use, rattlesnakes seem to have given up the ability to escape quickly in favor of venom, resulting in their much attributed “Don’t tread on me” attitude.

The rattlesnake was an adopted symbol of early America, used by Benjamin Franklin and newspapers of the area to promote unity of the colonies against Britain, and by the first sailors and mariners of the Continental Navy. The rattlesnake became the first, albeit unofficial, symbol of a unified force during the Revolutionary War. There is an intrinsic courage in a rattlesnake, a power that is used wisely and selectively. Little wonder the early Americans channeled their aspirations through such a symbol.

Whether in the wild or in hand, rattlesnakes are awesome to behold. Audubon is going to take a trip out to the Sinnemahoning Sportsman Association’s annual Snake Hunt on June 15, Father’s Day. This isn’t a “hunt” in the conventional sense. It is a gathering where folks bring the snakes that they’ve found to be measured and admired and sometimes tagged. Not just rattlesnakes are exhibited. Copperheads, racers,

Black Rat Snakes, garters, and other types of snakes are also present.

It is a weekend to celebrate a creature that once inspired our fledgling country to unity.

If you’re interested in coming with Audubon, reservations with payment must be made by June 10. There are some seats available in the Audubon van, others may carpool. Sinnemahoning is a little over two hours away, and we will plan on leaving Audubon around 8 a.m. Lunch is available there from vendors or the dining room, or you can bring your own. We should have you back to Audubon by 6 p.m. The cost is $63, or $47 for Friends of the Nature Center.

The trip will include a short hike through rattlesnake habitat, time at the snake hunt to learn about the snakes, and a demonstration and talk about PIT tagging and how the snakes are measured. Call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org to register or with questions.

Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails and Liberty viewing are open from dawn to dusk and the Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sundays when we open at 1 p.m.

Sarah Hatfield is a senior naturalist at Audubon.