“What’s wrong?!” Pam yelled from her room, hearing my barefooted, running steps thundering into my own bedroom from the office.
“Big Mojave green!” I yelled back. The rattlesnake had been spotted slow-hunt-crawling toward our Dirt Hill outside my office window, the same place I’d missed a chance at a similar but smaller critter last June.
Those of you who choose to rage at me for terminating venomous rattlers will have your comments deleted. The Mojave greens are abundant out here on this Arizona acreage one mile north of the Mexican border; the species is anything but at risk. Their poison is neurotoxic and ultra-deadly, and my wife has COPD. The rattlesnake who chooses to hunt within ten feet of our house is choosing to become a snack for the buzzards or the coyotes when its carcass is dropped a bit farther from the residence.
Loud noises began coming from Pam’s direction–the Mojave’s presence was upsetting news to her–as I was jamming a pair of shoes on my feet and grabbing both the .410 shotgun and a set of earphones. Last time, I missed because I dawdled, took the time to take the camera with me.
That mistake, I’ll never make again.
Out the door and over to the corner of the house. From there, drawing down on the still-crawling critter, I dropped the hammer–and missed. With a shotgun. From 40 feet. First time in my life I ever missed taking off a snake’s head with a shotgun at any range, but it is what it is.
Later, I’d figure out what I’d done, where I’d gone wrong when sighting down the barrel. I’d let a little barrel show below the bead and blasted the Magnum load of #6 birdshot just over the snake’s flat head.
But no matter. The -whiz!- of all those BB’s flying overhead was enough to make the big guy go WTF?!! It stopped moving and, as I moved closer, got a bit squiggly on its front half, raised its head a bit–not looking directly at me, didn’t seem to realize I was the real threat–and lifted its tail to shake just a little.
Not even enough to make an audible rattle, just sort of, “What’s going on here?”
I felt bad for it later, like I always do, after taking off the head with my 2nd shot…from 15 feet. By the time I’d taken pictures of the carcass (so as to have photos of the tail end for this Hub) and then gone to get Stan Spade, the shovel used for dead snake carrying duty, one of the huge horse lubber grasshoppers had already crawled up on top of the meat.
“Show some respect for the dead,” I growled at it, shooing it away before hauling the reptile’s remains out to the coyote feeding area.
Coyote feeding, or turkey vulture feeding, or ravens. Whatever gets there first.
Now, this post is titled, “How To Identify the Mojave Green Rattlesnake In a Hurry”, which I’d most definitely done. I doubt I eyeballed the crawler for more than half a second through that office window before sprinting for shoes and shooter. So…how did I do that? What made me know instantly what I was seeing?
After all, we also have gopher snakes around here, and those are all too often mistaken for rattlers and killed by humans (though not by us)…?
Had to think about that for a bit. Border law enforcement people will tell you they “just know” when they’re looking at an illegal immigrant, too. It’s the same thing, kinda sorta, but how do we break it down to the specific signals received by the brain?
Overall, it’s a presence. But to the tenderfoot, the rookie, that’s a word without meaning. So, a few details.
Identification Step One: The head. Sorry. All I can give you is a partial look at a Mojave’s head via the above photo–once I shotgun ’em, the heads aren’t available for photo ops. But the “spade” rule is simple: If the head end looks like a shovel (narrow neck with flaring spade-like head), that’s a big, big, clue.
Speaking of big, this one really…wasn’t so much. It measured three feet in length, not four. It’s easy to overestimate a live rattler’s size at times, especially after they get up above the 30 inch mark or thereabouts.
Identification, Step Two: The body. Around here, the innocent gopher snake is long and slender of body. The Mojave green rattlesnake is relatively a bit heavier of body.
Let’s show both for comparison.
Identification Step Three: Coloration: Some Mojave rattlers have a green tint to their hides and some do not. Additionally, for those that do, the green shows much more strongly under some light conditions than others.
The basic rule for us when it comes to “green or no green” is this: If the snake is not green, don’t assume it’s not a Mojave…but if it is green (and looks like a rattlesnake in general), you can bet your boots that’s what you’ve got.
Identification Step Four: The tail. This is the most definitive ID step of all. Many believe (me among them) that the Mojave is a relatively new species obtained by crossing cobras with western diamondback rattlesnakes. The tail, at least, makes that seem pretty obvious because the two (Mojave and western diamondback) share the distinctive “coontail” pattern, alternating bands of white and black just ahead of the tail.
And, of course, there are rattles attached to the somewhat blunt end of that tail. This morning’s specimen sported 11 rattles plus the button.
Caveat: The coontail pattern is not always that distinct for the Mojave green, though in the majority of cases it is. We’ve seen some where the bands were there right enough, but the colors were muted, blending in with the rest of the snake. In the majority of cases, however, the bands stand out sharply. And whether they do or not, here’s the Rule of the Tail: If the white and black bands (or simply light and dark bands) are roughly equal in size, you’ve got a western diamondback. If the white/light bands are much wider than the black/dark bands, it’s a Mojave green.
Summary: The easily identifiable “signposts” pointing to a snake being a Mojave green rattler include a spade-shaped head with a narrow neck, a body that’s somewhat heavy or thick through the middle, a coontail with the white or light bands much wider than the black or dark bands–and (duh) rattles.
Bonus Educational Material: What follows is “natural cycle of life in the desert” material. If you’re grossed out by the feeding habits of buzzards, please stop here.
Pam had an appointment with her psychiatrist today, which meant we spent many hours in Sierra Vista. After all, you can’t just drive on back home without stopping to eat, spending a small fortune at Walmart, and all that.
We pulled back into the driveway around 4:00 p.m…and one of our friendly neighborhood turkey vultures was chowing down on the Mojave green rattlesnake carcass I’d dropped in the coyote travel lanes about 150 yards from the house.
At one point, the big bird took to the air for a while, apparently a touch nervous that I kept edging closer. After a few minutes of soaring on high, though, it decided I wasn’t really a problem and came back down to finish its lunch.
Three photos follow:
1. The turkey vulture on the wing,
2. A moment when it has the entire deceased rattlesnake (or what’s left of it) in its beak.
3. What the buzzard left behind–which wasn’t much. About 2/3 of the snake’s spine, some scraps of hide, and the rattles (which were broken into two pieces but not ingested).
If you got this far, congratulations. You just learned something about how the desert cleans itself to go with the easy identification of Mojave green rattlesnakes.
My wife and I agree: We are endlessly blessed, living as we do in a veritable Life University, never knowing what lessons in the ways of nature each day may bring.
SEPTEMBER, 2016: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA RATTLESNAKE ID CHALLENGE
Kathy Keeler (see her comments below) has asked for help in identifying a noticeably green–and fairly large, 42″ length–rattlesnake recently encountered on their southern Monterey County, California, property. At first (before seeing the photos she sent my way), I thought it quite possible she and her husband had indeed had a run-in with a Mojave green…but one glance at the pictures told me: Definitely NOT a Mojave green. The toward-the-tail “striping” pattern is all wrong. for the following reasons:
1. The last foot or more of the California snake shows a rather smooth set of stripes. In the Mojave green, the hint of “diamondback” pattern continues all the way down to the lighter “coontail” pattern.
2. The Calfornia critter’s coloration pattern does not change near the tail (as the Mojave’s definitely does).
3. The California reptile’s DARK stripes are wider than the light stripes (all the way to the rattles), which is the exact OPPOSITE of the Mojave’s drastically wider LIGHT stripes.
That said, this (California) snake is most likely a hybrid blend of two Pacific rattler types which, one of Kathy’s correspondents stated, can sometimes come out with that greenish tint.
I’ve cropped two of the photos Kathy sent me and posted them here for our readers to study.