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Rattlesnake season is upon us – anyway for those of us who live west of the Missouri River. Rattlers will need a full meal every 10 days until the weather reaches the 80s and 90s; then they only need to eat only once every three weeks. During the fall, they’ll increase their meals to once every two weeks to store enough fat to get them through winter hibernation.

Rattlesnakes are less dangerous than their reputations have led us to believe. The most deadly species, the diamondbacks, aren’t found in North Dakota. They reside in the Southwest and in Mexico. Their bites cause less than one death per year in the parts of Arizona where they’re especially numerous.

The rattler’s nasty reputation stems largely from hair-raising stories invented for gullible immigrants; they were told that a rattler’s bite always led to death, sometimes within 3 or 4 minutes. They were even told that if a diamondback bit an ax handle or wheel spoke, it would swell up as big as a man’s arm.

The prairie rattler’s bite is, of course, a serious thing, but it’s not necessarily deadly to a grown adult or animal. Small rodents, on the other hand, succumb very quickly. Once its prey is dead, the snake unhinges its jaw, grasps the rodent by its nose, and slowly swallows it whole.

The rattlesnake gets its name from its warning signal – the vibration of the hollow horny segments at the tip of its tail. Depending on the prevailing temperature, the rattles vibrate at speeds from 20 to 90 cycles per second. Many believe that each segment in the rattle represents a year’s time, but actually, a segment is added each time the snake sheds its skin, which can happen a couple times a year.

Surprisingly, rattlesnakes have very poor eyesight and no ears. They sense movement through vibrations in the ground. Their keen sense of smell is not through their nostrils, but through the tips of their forked tongues, which is why they flick them when they’re alert or excited.

Between their eyes and nostrils is a small deep pit that’s highly sensitive to temperature. This feature provides a means of sensing warm-blooded animals and has led to the name “pit viper.” These sensors are especially useful at night and during cooler weather.

Rattlesnakes give birth to live young. Here in North Dakota, they do this every other year. They breed in the fall, hibernate during the winter, and give birth in midsummer after a gestation period of 155 days.

They hibernate in large groups and are often found traveling to their underground dens at the same time. The observation has led to the belief that the snakes migrate, but that isn’t true. They’re simply converging for the winter.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm