Grit Blogs > Desert Homesteading

Goodness Snakes Alive! Unwelcome Visitors at the Bear Cave

One of the exercises in the practice of mindfulness meditation is stopping before an open door and being mentally aware and in the present before passing through. It might well be that this meditation teacher spent some time in the Arizona desert. After discovering a half dozen or so rattlesnakes near the doorways of our buildings, we have become extremely mindful when we pass from inside to outside. At night, a flashlight is absolutely a necessity when outside.

Over the past three years, we have been visited by more than 25 rattlesnakes. While we have seen Banded Rock, Crotalus lepidus klauberi, and Blacktail, Crotalus molossus molossus, rattlers near us, they are typically a little higher in elevation. The scaly visitors that frequent our place are either the Western Diamondback, Crotalus atrox, or the less common and extremely dangerous Mojave, Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus .

     Coiled Diamondback rattlesnake

Western Diamondback on the porch 

The venom of the Diamondback is certainly dangerous, but the neurotoxins of the Mojave make it one of the most deadly critters in North America. As a consequence, we treat these snakes with the respect they deserve. On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to destroy these beautiful creatures unless there is no alternative available. Without our snakes, venomous or not, I am sure we would be overrun with rodents. We have a real abundance of pack rats, kangaroo rats, and a wide variety of ground squirrels and mice. All of which are fine and fun to watch scurry around but only when not overrunning the place. The snakes help us keep some balance with the rest of the smaller wild life here by the Bear Cave.

Snake Capture
 Ready for the capture box! 

So, while I am a good deal more timid than those snake/crocodile hunters I used to see on television before we abandoned the “tele”, I no longer have a protracted adrenalin rush during the capture. I’m just REAL careful.

     Snake into Capture Box
 Ready for a New Home 

After having done some research and equipped with a snake hook, tongs, and  a sturdy home-made capture and release box, we are able to relocate our unwelcome reptilian visitors. While I’m aware that some say that a snake transported away from their territory won’t survive, we continue to relocate them based on a couple of reasons. First, they were traveling to a new territory when they got here, so we figure we’ll just help them along a bit as they look for a new home. Second, we are outside a lot and would rather not have a surprise when reaching into a bush bean plant or rooting in the foliage for elusive zucchini. So, if they could not be relocated, I would have to destroy them, and I’m simply not excited about unnecessary killing, whatever the species.

Snake Peeking from Capture Box 

Is it safe to come out?

We live next to the Coronado National forest and when we catch one of the rattlers, we take them into the desert at least 3/4 of a mile from our buildings (or our neighbor’s). During the transport they often “adopt” the catch box as a den, however temporary, and are cautious about coming out.

            A New Home for a Rattlesnake

Heading for a new home

Sometimes it is necessary to literally shake the box to get them out.  But, once out of the box, the snake will generally head for the nearest shelter, in this case a mesquite tree with some underbrush.

         Red Racer
 Free from the netting and ready to go... 

While rattlesnakes get most of our attention, we also have a variety of non-venomous snakes. Gopher snakes are fairly common and I would love to see a big one take up residence near the garden to control the round-tail ground squirrel population and protect our beets.

On occasion, when we use a bit of bird netting to protect our young lettuce, we run afoul of our local coach whip snake, the gorgeous Red Racer, Coluber flagellum piceus. For whatever reason, these snakes cannot seem to leave a piece of bird netting alone. They will twist and tangle up and can do damage to themselves if not discovered in time. When we do use bird netting near the ground, we monitor it closely and have rescued three or four racers in the past year or so. While not venomous, the Red Racer is not only incredibly fast, but aggressive. I always wear gloves when handling them while Barbara cuts the netting from them.

Because of the danger to these snakes, we have nearly abandoned the use of bird netting and use a finer meshed screen through which the snake can’t pass to get tangled. Here at the Bear  Cave, we feel a real  tension between protecting critters and protecting crops without harming the wildlife.

          Horned Lizard
A resplendent Texas Horned Lizard 

One of the great delights of sitting on our porch is watching the antics of a whole bevy of lizards, from the Texas Horned Lizard, Phrynosoma cornutum, to the whiptails and collared lizards staking out their territory on our rock piles. When we dug the septic tank, we were left with a big stack of rocks. I made of few rock piles near the house to serve as lizard condos. The lizards do eat a lot of bugs and they’re fun to watch.

Unlike the more verdant parts of the world, at first glance our desert seems a wasteland, devoid of life. Nothing could be farther from the truth. From way too many kinds of bugs to rodents of many shapes and sizes and on to the larger mammals such as mountain lion, deer, javelina, coyotes galore, bear, and the rare jaguar plus a bird population that attracts birders from all over the world, the land around our desert homestead is thriving and alive. We love the concept that we are just one more life form among many and we try to fit in with minimal disruption. We do, however, take whatever measures we must to protect ourselves, our orchard, and our garden. So, when we are visited by our fanged friends, we make them feel as welcome as possible – somewhere else!