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!

dave larson
7/30/2011 9:43:46 AM

Hi Cindy, a number of years ago, I had opportunity to drive along the western Michigan shore line. It is indeed a beautiful place. The upcoming months, especially September and October, are my favorites in that part of the world. When we lived in Minnesota, we often drove the north shore along Lake Superior in the fall. Breathtaking colors. Enjoy the fall season for me, too.


cindy murphy
7/30/2011 5:29:15 AM

Nope, not the UP, Dave. I'm in the western part of the Mitten, along the shore of gorgeous Lake Michigan, and loving every second of it. Have a great weekend.


dave larson
7/29/2011 12:06:18 PM

Hi Robyn, I think you're right about the lack of rodents making the place unattractive to snakes. We have both here - from mice to pack rats - and the snakes love 'em. So it goes - What part of norther AZ are you calling home? Have a great monsoon day! It looks like more very welcome rain here.


dave larson
7/29/2011 11:47:33 AM

Hi Cindy, Thanks for your kind words. We didn't see much in the line of snakes when we lived in Minnesota either. But we do have them here. Walking back from the neighbors last night after evening chores ranch sitting, we found a little three-foot diamondback across the path. He scolded us some with his rattle as we went by. He is one of the reasons we use a flashlight after dark here. Enjoy your Michigan summer - Are you on the UP?


robyn dolan
7/28/2011 10:49:04 AM

Dave, I am so glad we don't have much trouble with snakes here at my place in No.Az. I'm told it's because I have several cats who eat the mice and other small critters the snakes usually eat. I understand some other people here have trouble with snakes, just glad it's not me;) Good to be reminded to wear my cowboy boots this time of year, though!


cindy murphy
7/27/2011 6:14:09 PM

Hi, Dave. Mountain Woman couldn't have said it better, and I echo her sentiments....except possibly the running for the hills bit; most likely only because we don't have many hills in this area, and certainly not one big enough to put enough distance between me and the snake. The biggest snake I've run across here was a black rat snake. It musta been about four feet long; I had no idea Michigan had snakes that big, and initially I thought it was a fallen branch laying across the trail. Not venomous, but I gave it a wide berth anyway while waiting for it to mosey across the path (do snakes mosey?). I love that you respect even the not-so-friendlies Mother Nature calls her own; thanks so much for sharing.


dave larson
7/26/2011 1:57:26 PM

Hey N Dave, I can really understand your Indy-like view of these critters. When we first moved out here to the desert, I felt very much as you do. But, while familiarity certainly doesn't breed contempt for these snakes, it does lower the anxiety level a fair amount. So, given our choice to live in the desert, it became a matter of comfort, seasoned with a liberal dose of "careful", to accept them and work around them. Have a great day - sans rattlesnakes.


dave larson
7/26/2011 11:47:42 AM

Mountain Woman, You're absolutely right on the "trade offs". I lived much of my life in northern Minnesota. No rattlers, scorpions, etc. But - five feet of snow, eons (per year) of sub-zero weather. In 1997, our outdoor thermometer read -57F. Way too cold! But in both cases, there is a real beauty to offset the discomforts. I have now become acclimated to the heat and the critters, so I can focus on and appreciate the beauty of our desert. Thanks for you sharing.


mountain woman
7/26/2011 7:07:27 AM

Dave, I love the desert. It has such a different energy and beauty from our lush forests. What an incredible place to live but I guess with everything beautiful comes drawbacks. Here, it's our 25 below weather and yours are poisonous creatures. I so respect that you don't just kill those critters and appreciate the part they play in our ecology. That being said, I think you are incredibly brave because if I saw one of those snakes, I'd be running for the hills screaming all the way. We have deer here who feast on our apple trees and share our fields with us. I've become quite creative in ways to keep them from eating my veggies. I think dealing with animals who share the earth with us forces us to become more cognizant in our approach and better stewards of our resources. You are right; there is an open door and if we are mentally aware, we will choose the right path. Thanks for a wonderful, informative (and spooky) article.


nebraska dave
7/25/2011 10:20:12 PM

Dave, "Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes? I hate snakes." (Indiana Jones) I'm with Indy on that one. They are just too sneaky for me. They hide in the bushes or rocks and scare the Gee Bees out of a person. I do know from my Las Vegas relatives that one does not go trekking through the desert without wearing good leather high top boots. We mostly have garter snakes here in Nebraska although there are rattlers here but mostly in western Nebraska. In all my years of living in Nebraska I haven't seen a single rattlesnake but that don't mean they weren't there. We have the infamous bull snake that can get really big and loves to sneak into the hen house and eat eggs. They swallow them whole and many times can't get back out the way they came in. They also eat the mice so it's a love hate thing with the farmers. As for me, I just rather not have any snakes around. Have a great snake free day.