Diamondback Rattlesnakes and Sonoran Gopher Snakes: How to Tell the Difference

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This post was originally titled “The Rattlesnake Who Got a Reprieve by Not Being a Rattler At All But a Sonoran Gopher Snake”. Knowing how to tell the difference is important. Sadly enough, the nonvenomous (and entirely helpful to humans) Sonoran gopher snake is often killed (by humans) who mistake it for a rattler.

They do look a bit alike. At first glance. Or if you’re too close for comfort, or snake-phobic, or….

Well, let’s just tell the story, the way it was originally written. The photos are all Sonoran gopher snake pics; you can eyeball rattlesnakes on Google Images any time.

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Sonoran gopher snake? What Sonoran gopher snake?

“Pam!” I called out, heading for the front door with the .410 shotgun, “Wake up! I gotta go shoot a big rattlesnake! Pa-am!”

“Huh? Wha–?”

“Rattler! Out by the drainage pit!” Appropriate for a pit viper, I guess. Not a good idea to be making big-bang sounds right outside of the house with my redhead napping. She has stress enough to deal with already.

I’d only seen the critter through the window screen briefly, a good four, maybe four and a half feet long, with the distinctive stripey pattern near the tail that meant–most likely–a Mojave green, deadliest rattler in the world. Zip, to the bedroom for the weapon! Zap, out the door into the thundershower without so much as a cap to cover the ol’ bald head! Zoom, around the corner, on the hunt!

When a single second can mean the difference between finding and not finding a potentially deadly threat in time to neutralize it, who takes the time to study the thing? Eh? Eh?

Where, now..? Ah! There. Just the tip of the tail, disappearing over the bank into the pit. Hammer back! Finger on the trigger! Okay, okay, I’m not one of these namby pamby keep-your-finger-off-the-trigger modern day wimps; my finger is always on the trigger. So?

Step. Step. Step.

Oh.

Not a rattler after all. My bad. More steps.

Step 1: Point shotgun away from snake.

Step 2. Let cocked hammer down on live shell ver-r-r-ry easily. I failed to do that once, practicing my quick-draw at age 13. Shot the man in the mirror. Which was way better than the several guys I knew who shot themselves in the knees doing the same thing. Montana madmen, nineteen-fifties.

Step 3. Dash back inside, wipe rainwater off of shotgun, put thing away. Ignore rainwater on self.

Step 4. Grab camera, get one picture through window screen (west side of house, not north side; snake moving).

GS1
From there, naturally, back outside and around the house, hoping to catch a few more pics of our visiting, rodent-eating, nonvenomous friend.

Oh. How to know it’s not a rattlesnake? Simple enough:

1. The tail tapers to a virtual point; the tails on rattlers never do that, ending bluntly in (duh) rattles.

2. The head is relatively small and rounded with no “squeeze” where the neck ends and the head starts. In a pit viper (rattler), the neck appears quite narrow before the skull flares in the distinctive “spade of death” poison-packing shape.

3. The marks across the back were kind of “saddle shaped”, not the more or less diamond-shaped marks on most local rattlers. (I trust that ID point the least and study it last on a live snake. Tail first! Head second! Unless of course the head is pointed in my direction, in which case….)

Got the pics–until I took one step too close to the tail end, that is. Our friend knew I knew it was there when I did that, so, silent scoot-slither, into the weedy cover and gone!

Field guide ID online: Looks like a Sonoran gopher snake. They munch mice, too, so it well could have been a member of the same species that hunted many meeces in our trash storage shed last winter and left a shed skin behind.

(Get it? In the shed…left a shed skin…oh, never mind.)

Online articles about this species tend to describe it as initially aggressive (though tameable), but the few we’ve seen here have not even been concerned enough about our presence to coil, let alone hiss or strike. They have simply taken it easy unless we got too close, then moved on out of the way if we did. Never a dull day.

GS2

GS3

GS4

Back then (when this page was originally written), the photos I got did not include a good look at the head end of the snake…so here’s one from just recently (late September, 2013).

Prison Letter 016 (2)

    Ode To The Sonoran Gopher Snake
    Eat that gopher! Eat that rat!

    Eat those rodents wherever they’re at!

    Long and slim with a powerful squeeze,

    Cut down the vermin population however you please!

    You’re welcome here at the Border Fort clambake;

    You’re the supercalifragilistic Sonoran gopher snake!

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