Walking down your front steps is an uneventful activity, but when a rattlesnake impedes the path, that quickly changes. That was the case for one Red Wing family when members discovered a timber rattlesnake coiled up on their front steps June 22. It took a call to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Brittany Hauser to send the snake on its way.
"It was located right in the middle of town," Hauser said. "Obviously not a common place for a rattlesnake."
She speculated that the snake hitched a ride with a harvest or grain truck.
One day prior to the sighting of the slithering front-step serpent, Hauser said she received a call from a woman who had seen a snake in the St. James Hotel parking lot under her car. Hauser received a picture of the snake and verified it was a rattlesnake, leading her to believe the one found on the front steps the following day was the same specimen.
"The odds of two different verified rattlesnakes within a half mile and within two days of each other is unlikely," Hauser said.
Adding to the rarity of this sighting is just how uncommon this snake is to find in general. The only part of the state the timber rattlesnake can be found is in the southeast. Even then, the chances of stumbling across one is next to none. The snake is habitually a shy creature that will generally flee — it's not going to sit there and wait for something or someone to agitate it.
"Most of the time we won't even know it's there," Hauser said. "We could walk right by and not even know. There is maybe one verified rattlesnake every three or four years. They are just few and far between."
Hauser said that she has received four snake calls all thinking it was a rattlesnake, but they have always ended up being a fox snake or bullsnake — two species much more common to the area. The easiest way to tell the difference is to catch a glimpse of the snake's tail. The timber rattlesnake has the iconic rattle that's easily identifiable, while the fox snake and bullsnakes have tapered, pointed tails that often are shook next to vegetation mimicking a rattle sound. For the brave, another way to tell is the head of the snake. Rattlesnakes have a triangular-shaped head while fox snakes and bullsnakes are more rounded.
Stigma on snakes is something Hauser seeks to reduce by educating those who come into contact with Minnesota's native snake species.
"I like having the opportunity to educate people about them because they are misunderstood, especially rattlesnakes," Hauser said. "A lot of people are fearful of rattlesnakes, but they actually do a lot of good for our ecosystems."
Keeping rodents in check is perhaps the most noticeable benefit to a healthy snake population, and of course, coyotes, raccoons and raptors help keep the snake population under control as well. It all balances in the end.
What to do
Hauser also likes to educate those who encounter rattlesnakes or other native species how to respond to an interaction.
"If you come across them in your house, give us a call and we will get them out of there," Hauser said. "But if you come across one in your yard, the best thing to do is just leave them alone." That includes keeping children and pets indoors so they don't agitate the snake.
A key reason why the DNR advocates leaving the snake alone and letting it pass through is the risk factors involved in moving the snake. With rattlesnakes, when moved a mile or more from where they were, the mortality rate is greater than 50 percent. For this reason the DNR has set up designated den sites to release the snakes when necessary. Hauser said that once the den sites became the main drop-off locations, the snakes have had a much greater chance at survival after being moved.
Even with the den sites though, Hauser still would like to avoid moving the snakes.
"We don't like to move them unless we have to," she added. "Just leave them alone and they will move on."
Unless of course, the snake is on your front step.