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Rattlesnake shake: Summer safety in the Santa Clarita Valley

Posted: June 24, 2009 2:37 p.m.
Updated: June 24, 2009 4:00 p.m.

A baby Southern Pacific rattlesnake coils in the Santa Clarita Valley.

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The warm weather has brought out the rattlesnakes. It is important to understand them, learn how to avoid them, and how to identify them to keep yourself, and your family safe this summer.

Rattlesnakes are an important part of our eco-community. They will generally not attack you unless they are disturbed or cornered, or perceive that they are threatened. In these cases, they will defend themselves.

In order to avoid a bite, it is important that you always be aware of your surroundings, and if you see or hear a snake, you should give it ample distance and respect. In most cases, a rattlesnake would rather retreat than attack a human.

The only rattlesnake in Santa Clarita is the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri). These snakes can vary in color from tans and browns to black. The adults can be as long as 54 inches, and newborns are approximately 10 inches. Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes can live as long as 21 years!

Rattlesnakes are pit vipers. The pits on the side of their heads sense heat, which help the snake to locate prey by their warmth. A bite from the snake will immobilize their prey. The venom will begin to break down and digest the animal's tissues, even before they are swallowed whole. A bite to a human is dangerous, and can be potentially fatal if not addressed immediately.

When snakes bite, they inject venom into their prey through fangs. Recently dead snakes have also been known to reflexively bite, so it is a good idea not to touch a rattler, even if he looks dead. Birds of prey, such as the red-tailed hawk, hunt rattlesnakes.

When a rattlesnake becomes alarmed, he will shake his tail back and forth as a warning. This motion will rub the segments of the rattle together, which produces the rattling noise that we all associate with these snakes. Exceptions are young snakes that do not have a rattle, but a yellow button which does not make a sound.

Rattlesnakes are found in a wide range of habitats including ocean side dunes, California chaparral, desert scrub, grasslands, oak woodland, riparian areas, mountains, hillsides, and even your yard or stoop. It is a good idea to always watch where you are walking during rattlesnake season.

Learn to recognize rattlesnakes. Look at the shape of the head first. It will be triangular. Other snakes have elongated, oval heads. Look at the end of the tail. Look for the rattles or the small yellow button of the juveniles. Listen to the sound the rattles make.

If the rattlesnake is coiled, he is ready to strike. He can strike the distance of his body, so you need to be at least that far away. Do not take chances with a rattlesnake. Study the photos accompanying this article.

Do not use a snake bite kit if you are bitten. Do not cut the wound, try to suck out the venom, or apply a tourniquet. All of these old methods will do nothing to help you, and will only make the problem worse and destroy more tissue.

Call 911 for help immediately. Get the patient to the hospital immediately. If you have a marking pen on you, put the time of the bite next to the wound right on the skin. Every half hour, put a mark where the swelling/redness have increased. This will help medical staff to determine how quickly the poison is spreading, and how much venom was injected.

The most important thing is to get help immediately, and be able to describe the snake that bit the victim.

Most people are afraid of all snakes and call for them to be killed on sight. I encourage you to just leave them alone.

They fill a vital role in our habitat. They eat lizards, other snakes, insects, rabbits, mice, squirrels and other animals that might become a nuisance if the rattlers were not around.

Give snakes a wide berth. If you don't threaten them, they will most likely leave you alone.

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