Cochise County: How To ID Western Diamondback Vs. Mojave Green Rattlesnakes

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Tam CoverCLICK HERE
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May 27, 2015. On our southern Cochise County (Arizona) acreage, we have both Mojave green and western diamondback rattlesnakes. Knowing how to identify, differentiating Crotalus atrox from Crotalus Scutulatus–and in a hurry at that–is crucial because, while antivenin is available at the local hospitals, the two species pack very different venom. Snakebite treatment with the wrong antivenin could prove even deadlier than the original bite.

Never mind the hybrids. My wife and I are convinced the Mojaves and westerns do interbreed at times. At any rate, it’s known that in certain specific areas, it’s possible to encounter a rattler identified as a Mojave green carrying both venom types, a one-two poison punch.

So, to the point: How does one instantly know the difference between these two when encountering them in the wild? After all, there are obstacles. They’re very, very similar in appearance. The Mojave often has a greenish tint to its scales, hence the term, “Mojave green”…but not in every individual and not in all types of light. (We’ve noted that coloration under bright sunlight only; it does not seem to show up at all in the beam of a flashlight or even in ordinary shade on a bright day.) The diagonal stripes on the sides of the head are different, but few of us are going to get close enough to study that little detail on a live rattler. Terminated buzz worms (as some Californians used to call them) have often lost their heads entirely–at least if a shotgun was used to do the terminating. The same goes for the supra oculuars (scales over the lidless eyes) and the scales between the supra oculars.

All of this head scratching leads us inevitably back to the one easily seen (much of the time) black and white coontail stripes on the tail, just ahead of the rattles. As I’ve mentioned in numerous posts, Mojave greens have white bands that are noticeably wider than the black bands whereas western diamondbacks have bands of roughly equal width.

That said, I wasn’t prepared for the tale my wife had to tell when I returned from town this afternoon.

“Do western diamondback rattlesnakes and desert cottontail rabbits cohabitate?” She asked?

“In the sense that rattlers eat rabbits,” I replied.

“Oh. Well. Out behind the far storage shed, there was a little rattler in a resting coil and a bunny sitting right behind him like they were buddies.”

“That,” I observed, “may be where the term dumb bunny comes from.”

“I threw a rock at the shed and–”

“You what?!”

“Threw a rock. The rabbit had already gone under the shed, but then the snake did, too.”

For the new reader, it’s important to understand that my 63 year old, five foot, Alzheimer’s victim, anorexic little wife is…well, she’s never boring.

“Babe, don’t ever throw a rock at a snake–”

“I wasn’t trying to hit it. I threw it at the shed.”

“Yeah, but you alarmed both of them, the rabbit and the snake. Don’t ever throw a rock at a snake unless you know you can kill it. Which I’ve done, but killing a rattler with nothing but rocks isn’t all that easy. You have to know what you’re doing. And I would never

“I just killed my bunny, didn’t I?”

“Don’t know. Let’s go snake hunting.” We do not like terminating the pit vipers, not one bit, but we can’t afford to leave them roaming around in our high traffic walking areas near the Border Fort, either. Right now, Pam weighs 82 pounds; one venom-whap would kill her stone cold dead before the Life Flight helicopter could even get here. Her balance isn’t that great, either; she could fall on a snake. “Show me exactly where you saw the rabbit and the rattler.”

She did. “Okay, now you keep an eye on the hole–not that I expect the snake to come crawling back out this soon, but just in case. I’m going to get the Maglite, shine it under there, see if I get lucky.” Pam’s reptile sighting had happened no more than ten minutes before I got home; there might be a chance.

“Okay.”

On the return trip, cutting through on the gravel path between sheds, I saw…”Pammie, come over here, please.” She came walking slowly and carefully around the shed, which she has to do with her balance problems. I pointed under the near front corner of the steel storage shed. “Is that the same snake? You’ll have to squat down to see it.”

“Where–oh, there. Yes. Yes, that’s the same snake.”

The western diamondback rattlesnake in  a resting coil under the shed.  "Is that the same snake?"  I asked Pam.   "Yes," she replied.  "Yes, that's the same snake."

The western diamondback rattlesnake in a resting coil under the shed. “Is that the same snake?” I asked Pam.
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes, that’s the same snake.”

The rattler didn’t seem bothered by the Maglite I shined its way, so I took the time to snap a couple of photos including a close-up (via zoom lens, thank you very much). As Pam pointed out later, “I’d have walked right by there and never seen it.”

“They don’t jump out from cover at you.”

“They don’t? That’s good to know.”

“Why would they? They only strike when they feel threatened, and they feel safe with a roof over their heads.”

By the time she was behind me and I’d donned my shooting muffs, she was on the phone with her friend Jesse, giving him a blow by blow account as he encouraged her. “Do exactly what your husband says.” I like the way this guy thinks. I spoke in my head to the reptile, “Sorry,” and pulled the trigger. A .410 is a lightweight shotgun, but it still packs a lot of punch, even when loaded with #6 birdshot. When the dust cleared, I had to go rig a long snake-snagging wire to retrieve the carcass.

Yep. Western diamondback, all right. See how close the white and black bands are to being equal in width?

Coontail on a western diamondback rattlesnake.  Note the relatively equal width of the white and black bands.

Coontail on a western diamondback rattlesnake. Note the relatively equal width of the white and black bands.

Yes, at least one of those white bands on the western does look a bit wider than the adjacent black bands, but the difference is nominal in comparison with the Mojave green rattlesnake ratios as shown in the photo below of a Mojave killed out behind the house a couple of years ago. In the middle of one late summer night, I came within one pace of stepping on that one.

The much wider white than black bands clearly identify the Mojave green rattlesnake.

The much wider white than black bands clearly identify the Mojave green rattlesnake. Also note the greenish tint to the main body scales.

Pammie was feeling bad about the whole experience, from doing the “wrong thing” in throwing the rock to having to watch me terminate the rattler. Jesse and I both assured her that she’d actually done the right thing even if it was only by accident that she scared the young 23 inch snake so much that it had traveled from corner to corner under the shed, ending up in a position visible to the guy with the shotgun. “Hey, babe, you probably saved at least a dozen bunnies!” This fairly small viper may have considered full grown rabbits a bit too big for its gullet today, but baby bunnies would be oh so delectable…and at some point a growing rattler will decide, “Yum! Rabbit!”

Beyond that, once a rattlesnake takes up residence in the middle of a major rodent population center, the snake’s major food group takes a very long time to recover. In 2012, I missed a 30 incher that made it down a spotted ground squirrel hole before I could get a shot off. The same snake surfaced three months later and was terminated, but by then the ground squirrel colony had become a squirrel ghost town. The little cuties still aren’t back, and we don’t blame them.

The smallish (23 inch) western diamondback under the storage shed in a resting coil.  (Close-up.)

The smallish (23 inch) western diamondback under the storage shed in a resting coil. (Close-up.)

Curiously enough, Pammie has a sixth sense that tells her which species she’s seeing. She informed me from the beginning that this one was a western diamondback. That’s most interesting, especially considering the fact that her eyesight is not the best; she certainly did not make the determination by eyeballing the coontail difference. Rather, as she puts it, “I felt less danger from this one. Not a lot less, but some. So I knew it was a western.” Living around the critters as we do, I’ve developed a bit of that talent as well…but not to her level.


UPDATE: May 30, 2015.
Pam called me while I was out running errands today. She was ecstatic. Right in the exact same spot where she’d first eyeballed the rattler, there was a really young baby cottontail just hanging out, getting it figured out how to graze and browse. That little bunny would have been a perfect meal for the terminated snake…which meant she knew she’d helped the little rabbit be safe by playing her part in the demise of the diamondback…and the bunny was even friendly, too, not overly alarmed by her presence. That was definitely cool. I got home about an hour later and the widdle wabbit was still there, so I quick-like-a-bunny got a few photos. Might as well add one below this paragraph, right?

Right.
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The very young desert cottontail rabbit my wife found sitting in the exact same spot the (now terminated) rattlesnake had occupied 24 hours earlier.

The very young desert cottontail rabbit my wife found sitting in the exact same spot the (now terminated) rattlesnake had occupied three days earlier.

14 thoughts on “Cochise County: How To ID Western Diamondback Vs. Mojave Green Rattlesnakes

  1. Glad Pam stayed away from that thing when she saw it the first time. I will show the pictures to my walker daughter, and to my newest arrived son.

  2. There you go. Despite the plethora of Mojave greens in the area, this is the first time since we moved here six years ago that I’ve managed to photograph a western diamondback. In fact, we’ve only come across two, both in the same general area. The other one was seen literally sneaking up behind Pam, flat-bellied sneak, when I was away but Zach was visiting and had his friend Brandon along. Zach terminated that one and had disposed of the carcass before I got home, but that was in 2010 and I didn’t yet have a really decent camera anyway.

  3. We haven’t seen a single snake within a block of here. The only snake any of us have seen was a block and half away, and it was the one I sent a picture of to you and you said it was not poisonous. I got some snake repellent at Home Depot shortly after we got here. It smells like moth balls. The guy said that it was great stuff. He lives down the street from us and said he had lived there for 15 years and had never seen a snake on his property either. He owns the house at the beginning of the street, with the horses. Rodger spread the stuff out in little piles as instructed and not a single sighting of them. We still have some and if you want I will send a picture of it so you can get some if you want. It wasn’t much, I think about $10. We have only seen one scorpion, and that was in the rose garden.

  4. Interesting. I never realized there was such a thing as effective snake repellent. We got our first centipede in the house last night–still alive and hiding for all I know. I was barefoot (not a normal scenario for me, but hey), felt its little feet brush by my foot as I was heading into my bedroom, shined the flashlight and watched Gato’s intense gaze. Saw it all right but did not get a kill angle on it before it made it to cover. Sprayed some wasp killer into the crack where it went, but whether that made a difference or now, who knows?

    The good thing is that they (the centipedes–we seem to average 2 or 3 a year that make it inside) always head for my back half of the house with NO interest in Pam’s bedroom.

    The only scorpion we’ve spotted here was in the house, also near my bedroom doorway, dead. I’d apparently stepped on it (in shoes) the night before without even realizing it. That was in…2011, if memory serves.

  5. Wow, close call! I would have been scared to death, but I guess you and Pam are used to seeing snakes on your property. I notice there’s also quite a bit of difference in the rattles between the two types of snakes.

  6. Sha, I’ve never thought to study the rattles themselves. Most likely, what you’re seeing is simply the combination of different camera angles and different ages in the two reptiles–but maybe not. Nobody’s ever written about differences in rattles; it would be cool if your observation triggered a future post on the topic. 😉

    Pam wasn’t really scared per se. She was maybe 5 feet from the snake when she first saw it, but this not-quite-two-footer couldn’t come anywhere close to covering that much distance with a strike. Plus, a resting coil is just that; the rattler was not showing any aggressive behavior at all.

  7. Thanks, Sha. I might respond with “You da woman, Sha!”…but somehow that doesn’t seem to translate quite the same…. 🙂

    See update above.

  8. Ghost32 – I worked in pest control for years. For effective control inside (in case you don’t like insecticide on the interior) domyownpestcontol.com has cases of 72 glue boards which when folded and placed along walls and in closets works very well for all insects including centipedes and scorpions.. The insecticide can be mixed with water and sprayed 10 feet out from your exterior walls and two feet up the wall and this provides an excellent barrier against scorpions and other creepy critters. It’s safe. I used it for a long time in a commercial setting.
    http://www.domyownpestcontrol.com/catchmaster-mouseinsect-glue-boards-72mb-p-263.html?sub_id=558

    http://www.domyownpestcontrol.com/cyonara-97-p-428.html

  9. Thanks, Mike. I’m familiar with the site but had never thought about using glue boards. They would not be workable for the Border Fort (if you ever walked into our home, you’d see why in a heartbeat), but your clue could end up being helpful for other readers.

    Why wouldn’t they work for us? Well, first of all, the only time we’ve ever sprayed insecticide (either inside or outside) was when we had a bizarre ceiling-level infestation of harvester ants who couldn’t find any lower access to the home. (We’d inadvertently created a population explosion by hanging a bird feeder too close to the house and gorging the colony on fallen seed.) So what happens–as near as I’ve been able to figure–is this: Our home is so tightly done, with concrete stucco creating a pest-proof barrier all the way to the rafters, that the ONLY entry point for creepy crawlies is right in under the front door, pushing through the weather stripping. Once in, they invariably gravitate immediately–for whatever reason–straight back to “my end” of the house…very seldom touching a wall en route, though there has been at least one wall-crawling centipede exception.

    For “ordinary” homes not built right down on and to some degree IN the ground, and willing to spray outside, that’s another kettle of pest control.

  10. Liz, I understand your take on this, believe it or not. Unfortunately, it’s simply not that practical to relocate rattlesnakes here. If we see one that’s “out away from the house a bit,” we DO let them be, but in close–where either one of us, but especially my deeply disabled and extremely tiny wife, could step on one, it’s not an option.

    “Why not?” I’m sure you’re asking, so I’ll respond to that:

    1. Any hesitation, even for a matter of seconds, in eliminating a rattler…can and often does mean losing track of them altogether. Example: I did hesitate once, a few years ago–thinking I could snap a picture–and the snake zipped down a local rodent hole. We didn’t see that particular reptile for about 3 more months, until I came within a stride of stepping on it while it was in a resting coil under a single weed, about 3 feet from our home’s south wall, around midnight one night. In the meantime, that snake single-snakedly wiped out our entire population of little spotted ground squirrels, which we dearly loved. I’ll never hesitate again.

    2. Pam, in her younger years, was married to a man who did relocate rattlers. Unfortunately, not far enough away–and where is a “good” place for relocation? In their case, the same snakes often returned, but even if distant, who’s to say dropping a strange snake in ANY new territory is an act of kindness? Said rattler is then on some stranger’s turf, whether that stranger turns out to be another animal or another human being. Unless there’s such a thing as an “endless rattler refuge” (which, around here, there is not), adding to a given area’s population may well be an act of ignorance with unforeseen consequences (although the human doing the relocating may never know what those consequences turned out to be). At the very least, while relocating a rattlesnake may “let it live” a while longer, it’s definitely a death sentence for the various prey animals that feed the “reprieved reptile” for as long as it lives–so you’re murdering many creatures, not one. You just don’t have to SEE the slaughter, or the fact that the numerous mice, kangaroo rats, ground squirrels, rabbits, etc., that make up the snake’s meals…die horribly agonizing, venom-induced deaths, whereas the rattler nearly always loses its entire head to a single blast from my shotgun. I kill, but I kill more “cleanly” than the snake does, and I make no apology for that.

    So, one murder of a venomous predator by my own hand, where I can’t deny I did it, or a whole bunch of second-hand other-critter atrocity deaths caused by my supposed “act of mercy?” Well, I admit that I let other people do the murdering of cattle and chickens that grace my dinner table, but I’m not going to pretend I’d be a “better person” by passing off the deaths of all those Snake Lunches to Mother Nature, simply because I wouldn’t have to witness them with my own eyes.

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