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Gallery » Rattlesnake Shake!

Prairie rattlesnake
Photo Credit: Sheri Monk

Spring has sprung and the proof was in the sweet and unmistakable sound of a rattle at the end of a snake's tail.

I was able to take a few days off and head to southwest Saskatchewan to go herping. Saskatchewan is my very favourite place in Canada to vacation and I go specifically to check out the den sites and dispersal range of one of our three species of rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis).

Canada's rattlesnakes are protected by law and for good reason. Their habitat has been steadily eaten away - and throughout history, this beneficial member of our natural habitat has been persecuted by humans. Now, it is illegal to kill, injure or collect the snakes and Alberta has even erected signs along highways they are likely to cross to try and prevent their death by vehicles.

It is imperative that we continue to protect our remaining populations of rattlesnakes, and I am so proud to be able to say that most of the people I have encountered in the field respect the law and do not destroy the snakes found on their land. This is in sharp contrast to how the snakes have been viewed in previous generations, and also much different from the attitude in the southern states where rattlesnake round-ups still result in the needless death of thousands of snakes each year.

Northern populations of Crotalus viridis (and all other species in Canada) are dependent on the same den site (hibernacula) every year. They breed and give birth near the den site and return each year to the same den to retreat in safety from the cold of winter. This means when ranchers, farmers, industry or mines destroy a den site, they were effectively wiping out an entire pocket of the population.

Crotalus viridis, the prairie rattlesnake, is found in southwest Saskatchewan and southeast Alberta. They are large, venomous and absolutely beautiful to behold. Colouration ranges from a dull yellow to a bright olive green and they can get quite large in length, but the average is just over three feet. Among rattlesnakes, they are not shy to use their rattle - giving ample time and warning to those that encounter them in the field. I've observed many, many individuals of this species and though they will coil up in the classic defence posture, they are reluctant to strike, preferring instead to preserve their resource-intensive venom for prey items. Click here for a video of a rattlesnake defense stance.

Crotalus viridis envenomation is nothing to take lightly - it is capable of causing death - but with the anti-venom called CroFab and quick medical attention, the outcome is usually positive. There are very few incidents of envenomation in Canadian history and nearly all bites can be avoided by a hands-off policy, common sense and a healthy respect for the snake.

There are two main areas I spend time in - one is in Alberta on private land by permission of the owner. His land hosts several den sites and though not a snake fan, this man has lived with them for nine decades and respects the animal enough to allow it the space it needs to thrive. Despite living with these snakes in his backyard his entire life, he has never been bitten.

The other area is Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. This park is natural prairie habitat, split into two large blocks as the park has grown over time when land owners in the area wish to sell. Not a park for typical recreation, all you'll find here is rolling hills, mountains of sand, cactus plants and many incredible animals that depend on this protected habitat for their long-term survival.

Grasslands West is home to the last remaining populations of black-tailed prairie dogs - and these cities are alive and thriving! I have observed several nature lovers from all across Canada photographing and admiring the colonies. The park is also home to burrowing owls, badgers (an animal that seems less and less common), coyotes, bobcats, bison, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, shorthorned lizards, raptors and perhaps even the occasional ranging cougar. You can spend days in the park and see only a handful of other visitors but the park's visitor centre located in the town of Val Marie is fully staffed and maps and guided tours are available.

The highlight of this spring visit was the opportunity to observe a mature male rattlesnake following the scent trail of a female. He was so large and heavy he had difficulty moving across the sandy slopes in pursuit of the retreating female. She disappeared over the ridge as did he. Whether contact was finally made was left to the imagination, but witnessing the natural behaviour of the animals was almost as thrilling as discovering a nest of newly born baby rattlers last fall.

This excursion was the second time I have ever seen a badger - and this after 18 years of seeking one. When I was 12, I read a book called "Incident at Hawk's Hill" and fell in love with the feisty attitude of our native badger, Taxidea taxus.

Last year was my first encounter, at night, and the badger was not at all skittish as it continued it's den digging at the side of the road from where I was able to observe it for nearly one half hour. This year's badger was out in the daylight - I initially thought it to be a coyote but had a moment to confirm the I.D. before it scrambled into the nearest hole of safety.

Beautiful animals, they are persecuted because of the holes they create in the land but many other species use and adapt the badger hole to suit their own biological requirements. As such, the badger is instrumental in preserving the Prairie ecosystem.

On the way back east, the dens at Narcisse were a mandatory conclusion to the successful herp trip. The dens are full of garter snakes right now, mostly Thamnophis sirtalis and the locale boasts the title of hosting the largest snake dens in the world and snake enthusiasts from all over the globe have made the trek to observe the natural wonder.

Though many might associate Canada with polar bears and timber wolves, we have a stunning selection of reptiles and amphibians that make our country even more of a biological wonder. We even have one true species of scorpion and black widows can be found in four of our provinces - a beautiful spider with an inflated reputation for being dangerous.

After visiting the rattlesnakes again this year, my dream of one day moving to their range and buying property with a den site on it seems less and less like a dream and more and more like an eventual reality. Life is far too short to neglect one's true passion and living in a country of such incredible opportunity, the possibilities are endless. Imagine being able to observe and study a population year over year, tracking their range, making growth notes and monitoring the birth and annual survival rate of the clutches!

Truly, I can imagine nothing more fulfilling or exciting.

I've yet to see any bears or wolves this spring, but every spare moment will be spent searching for the opportunity to view any willing animals that time, circumstance and luck will allow me to. Please feel free to share what you've been able to see and observe so far and through the summer season. I'd love to hear about it!

Comments

Brent "Bubba" Mazur » May 10th 2007, 09:49

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Great article and wonderful pictures! I didn't know we had rattlesnakes in Canada. Always nice to learn new things. :)

Author » Sheri Monk » May 10th 2007, 10:43

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Thank you! :)

I know there aren't many snake fans in the general populace, but many still appreciate nature in general.

Matt Pearce » May 11th 2007, 17:43

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*****insert "trouser snake" joke here*****

sorry, just had to...


Ive never heard a rattlesnake in person before, must be a great mesmerizing sound. That badger looks cute! hehe!

Brent "Bubba" Mazur » May 13th 2007, 10:40

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A few years ago, I visited the Laredo Community College Science Center in Texas. They had a number of rattlers in a glass enclosure. The racket they would make when I stepped close to the glass was amazing and intimidating. :)

Author » Sheri Monk » May 14th 2007, 10:16

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Hahah Matt. :)

Yeah, it's amazing how far the sound can be heard from - almost half a football field, I'd estimate. Maybe a little less - but pretty darn far!

I wish Manitoba had rattlers - it's too far to get to western SK for just a weekend.

Author » Sheri Monk » Jun 24th 2007, 23:27

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Well (in case anyone still checks)...
We're moving to Maple Creek, SK!
Close to rattlers (one hour) and tons of other stuff we love. Great job allowing me to get back into news reporting again and a beautiful town with a low cost of living.
(And... NO Walmart or McDonalds!)

Had to share the great news!

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Sheri Monk

  • 43 years old
  • Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
  • User since Mar 2nd 2007, 15:05

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