Rattlesnakes, also called rattlers, are responsible for more snakebites in North America than any other type of snake. There are 36 species of rattlesnake, including the timber rattlesnake, eastern diamondback, western diamondback, Mojave rattlesnake, and prairie rattlesnake. Rattlers come out to eat, sun themselves, and find mates. They are members of the pit viper family of snakes—so named for the pits near their eyes. They rely on the heat of the sun to keep their bodies warm.
Like all pit vipers, rattlesnakes have relatively poor vision that relies mainly on movement. But, they have a secret weapon that allows them ‘see’ no matter what time of day or night it is: heat vision. That’s right! Those little pits on their heads actually allow them to sense heat and strike with deadly accuracy.
With such a formidable array of senses, and deadly, venom-injecting fangs, it’s important to know just when rattlesnakes come out. Here, we’ll learn a little more about recognizing rattlers and where to watch for them. Then, we’ll explore the times of the year to avoid rattlers, as well as whether or not you should watch out for them at night. After, we’ll go over the steps you should take when and if you ever encounter a rattler.
What Do Rattlesnakes Look Like?
Rattlesnakes range from under two feet long to over eight feet long, with the eastern diamondback being the largest species. Most species have a distinct diamond pattern of alternating light and dark scales running down their bodies. Bullsnakes have a similar appearance, but they lack a few of the key features that make rattlesnakes unique.
Unlike bullsnakes or other species of snakes, rattlesnakes have spade-shaped heads that are very wide at the base of the skull. They also, of course, have rattles. The one exception to this is in baby rattlesnakes. Baby rattlers are born with only one rattle segment and can’t rattle until they grow at least three segments.
Rattlers have one more distinctive feature: their fangs. Rattlesnakes come out to hunt small mammals, birds, and reptiles. When they strike, their fangs open like switchblade knives—they can grow up to half an inch in length. Bullsnakes and other snakes in North America don’t have such impressive fangs.
It may seem counterintuitive to those of us who have always pictured rattlesnakes in the desert southwest, but rattlers actually live all over North America, Central America, and South America. They can be found as far north as southern Canada and as far south as Argentina. Like all snakes, rattlesnakes come out to warm their bodies in the sun, no matter where they are.
Rattlesnakes are highly adaptable to different climates and regions; they can be found in deserts, forests, scrublands, and even swamps. So, just because you’re hiking in a lush pine forest doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch out for rattlers.
What Months Do Rattlesnakes Come Out?
The yearly cycle of rattlesnakes is extremely dependent on the local climate. But, most spend their winters brumating in dens with tens to hundreds of other snakes. Brumation is similar to hibernation; during brumation, their metabolism slows down, and they do very little other than sleep away the cold months.
Rattlesnakes come out in early spring and stay active until early fall. This may change depending on the weather—the hottest months of the year may bring about another period of reduced activity for them, called aestivation. Rattlers like it warm, but not too warm, so they’re most likely to be active during the spring and fall—the same times of year that humans like to spend outdoors.
Do Rattlesnakes Come Out at Night?
Unlike other animals, who only come out in the day or only at night, rattlesnakes come out at all times of the day or night. They are diurnal, nocturnal, and crepuscular, depending on weather, wildfires, temperature, and prey availability.
Rattlesnakes come out both at sunrise and sunset, making them crepuscular. Often, these are their most active times, but they also come out in the full sun and full light. Creatures that are active in the day are known as diurnal, while nighttime animals—like owls—are nocturnal. Rattlesnakes, however, are both. They are extremely adaptable and will stay awake at whatever time suits them best.
The Best Times of the Year to Avoid Rattlesnakes
If you’re looking to avoid rattlers, then you need to know when rattlesnakes come out and when they’re most active. Winter is the least active time of the year for rattlers, though most people don’t hike in the winter months. Rattlesnakes also slow down at the height of summer, when the heat is at its worst. But, again, this is also the time of the year that they’re most active at night, sunrise, and sunset.
Unfortunately for avid outdoors people, the best times of the year for hiking and camping are also the best times of the year for rattlesnakes to come out. So, if you don’t want to camp in the frigid winter months, your best bet is to go ahead with your outdoor activities, but only after learning a little bit about rattlers. And, you should know the dos and don’ts of hiking or camping in rattlesnake countries.
What to Do If You See a Rattler
At heart, rattlesnakes don’t want to hurt us. In fact, they see us as threats, not as dinner. Because of this, rattlesnakes don’t hunt people, and they’re typically not aggressive. They would rather stay hidden, and not risk their lives in a fight with a human. But, sometimes things happen, and humans and rattlesnakes come together.
If this happens to you, the first thing to remember is that rattlers are dangerous wild animals, and should be admired from a distance. Do not approach or make any attempt to handle rattlesnakes, no matter how interesting they may be. Move away slowly from them, take pictures from a safe distance, and leave them to hunt rodents another day.