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Rattlesnakes: Born to do Battle? 

Red hot and rarin' to go: our "peace-loving" Pacific Rattlesnake. Photo by Jim Anderson.

Red hot and rarin' to go: our "peace-loving" Pacific Rattlesnake. Photo by Jim Anderson.

In our travels assisting the Oregon Eagle Foundation to survey Central Oregon for active Golden Eagle breeding territories, my wife, Sue and I come across a wonderful variety of reptiles.

When the days are nice and warm, just about all the lizards that live in the Great Sandy Desert dash across the road ahead of us. Most of the time we're driving slowly, looking for eagle nests (and big rocks!). Sagebrush lizards are fast as they dash across the road, but side-blotched lizards seem to be a tad faster. The tiny, pygmy horned lizard sort of waddles when it's surprised on the road, while western fence lizards are common and fast to avoid us on the road around rim rocks.

Two snakes—somewhat look-alikes—are seen frequently, but not as often as I'd like. The common gopher snake enjoys the warmth of the roadway in late afternoon, especially if it's digesting a freshly swallowed rodent. And, we've also seen his look-alike, a pit-viper, our Pacific rattlesnake at about the same time of day for the same reason. Unfortunately, most people are quick to run them over, rarely taking the time to enjoy the beauty of our only pit-viper, and many a harmless gopher snake is treated the same way.

Perhaps the most disgusting incident I have ever witnessed in the death of a rattlesnake was in Arizona, just outside Tucson. I came around a curve and had to make a quick stop to avoid running into the passenger car in front of me. The driver was in my lane, slowly jockeying his car so he could run directly over a very large diamond back rattlesnake.

Again and again, while leaning out of the car to watch his progress, the driver kept jockeying the car until the front wheel was directly over the mid-section of the snake. Then, with a triumphant yell, he ran his vehicle right across the middle of the helpless reptile and drove off, shaking his fist out the window. I almost puked.

I wrote down the guy's license plate and when I got into Tucson, called a wildlife officer I knew to report the incident as willful use of a motor vehicle to kill wildlife. My officer pal said unfortunately it was legal to kill rattlesnakes any way you can in Arizona, but he'd pass the guy's number along to traffic.

It has been said by many herpetologists (reptile and amphibian researchers) that rattlesnakes are a (sort of) peace-loving critter: "Leave them alone, and they'll leave you alone." That has been my experience as well, but when push comes-to shove, well, don't push it! Like the experience Sue and I had recently.

Last May, while searching the rimrocks just north of what was once our only salt lake, Lake Abert, way down in Lake County, Sue spotted a cliff with an eagle nest on it. We set up our grand old Eagle spotting scope we've used for years, and she said, "A great horned owl's using this one."

That's not uncommon. Great horned owls, in my opinion, never build a nest, they probably don't know how and don't waste time learning the art. They just move into an old unused raptor nest, a large pile of sticks on a cliff. Once I banded baby owls in a nest that was nothing more than a handful (literally) of juniper needles caught in the crotch of the limbs of an old-growth juniper.

An owl who moves into an unused golden eagle nest could be in trouble. Just about the time the chicks are ready to hatch, along comes Mama eagle wanting to use the same nest, which usually ends badly for the owl. I have found adult and juvenile owl feathers in eagle pellets.

To be sure, we drove closer and the great horned owl morphed into a long-eared owl, which is not uncommon either; they both have obvious feathered "horns" on top of their heads and use whatever nest they can. We drove close enough to be sure it was a long-eared, then, not wanting to stay within the comfort zone of the incubating female, I turned around to leave.

As I was backing up, Sue suddenly shouted, "Stop!" and leaped out of the passenger seat, running toward the rear of our faithful, old, 322,000-mile 4-Runner. "I heard a rattlesnake," she exclaimed, walking back and forth behind the rig.

I watched her in the rear-view mirrors as she inspected the sage and rabbitbrush, when she suddenly stopped and slowly began circling a big saltbrush directly behind us.

I jumped out with camera in hand, and as I approached the rear of the vehicle, I could also hear the unmistakable sound of a very agitated rattlesnake. Hearing the snake would have been impossible, because I'm deaf as a post, but with my handy-dandy Central Oregon Audiology hearing devices in place, the sound came though loud and clear.

As usual, I apologized to the snake for making such a fuss in and around his home, and asking Sue to keep an eye on him, I slowly moved the 4-Runner around so we could exit the snake's domain without any further stress to him.

For me, and I hope for you too, it's best to have a "let-live" philosophy regarding the buzz-tails of our great old Oregon country. The guys who put together that grand old rattlesnake flag, "Don't Tread On Me," got the message right, for several reasons.


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