Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Timber rattler threatened in Tennessee

Timber rattler habitat decreasing

I read an article about a timber rattler found on a Murfreesboro, TN, elementary school campus. Unfortunately, the school superintendent killed it, rather than calling an animal control service that might have been able to remove and relocate it without injury.

Timber rattlesnakes are considered threatened in Tennessee. In fact, it is illegal in Tennessee to kill, harm, or possess any native wild snake without a permit. The school superintendent was out of line, despite the circumstances.

Murfreesboro, TN, is a city of about 100,000 people that is located 35 miles southeast of Nashille. It is right in the middle of timber rattler country. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation describes the areas of the U.S. where timber rattlers have historically been found:

The range of the timber rattler extends from southern New Hampshire south through the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia and west to southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Texas. Populations were once found on Long Island and in most mountainous and hilly areas of New York State, except in the higher elevations of the Adirondacks, Catskills and Tug Hill region. They are now found in isolated populations in southeastern New York, the Southern Tier and in the peripheral eastern Adirondacks. (Source)

The rattler in Murfreesboro was probably hunting. It was spotted late in the evening by walkers. A place with bits of food litter on the ground is a good place to hunt for rodents. During the warmer months of the year, timber rattlesnakes return regularly to favorite hunting spots within a 2 to 3 mile area of their winter den. The snake may have hunted on the school property many times.

The common name of the timber rattler derives from their attraction to rugged, timbered areas. Their winter dens are usually in an area where rock outcroppings, rock ledges, or loose rocks create sheltered nooks below the frost line.

Timber rattlers like a sunny, rocky knob near their den, where they can lie in the sun and warm up in the early spring. The rocks provide emergency shelter in case of a change in the weather or a predator, while the snakes are still not moving at full speed. Pregnant females bask on warm sunny rocks for much of the summer as their babies develop.

Despite their common name, timber rattlesnakes are not particularly good at climbing trees; their heavy bodies don't lend themselves to shinnying up tree trunks. It's rare to see one high in a tree. However, they are considered one of the better climbers of the rattlesnake family.

In the woods, timber rattlers often hunt around fruit trees or mast trees (oaks, hickories, beech) because the fruit and nuts attract rodents. Squirrels are said to be an important part of their diet. They also hunt in newly-mowed meadows or recently-harvested fields, when such areas are within their range. There, they feast on voles, moles, gophers, mice, and rats.

Timber rattlers are usually not aggressive. They prefer to rattle rather than fight.The vast majority of bites from timber rattlers occur when people attempt to handle them. The bites are rarely fatal, though they are very painful. Some members of the Appalachian snake handling churches have reportedly been bitten dozens of times by timber rattlers. Deaths are typically because victims do not seek medical attention promptly.

Murfreesboro is currently the fastest growing city in Tennessee and one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. It added about 20,000 residents in a recent five-year period, according to statistics in Wikipedia.

As Murfreesboro and Nashville sprawl toward each other, development is taking up more and more timber rattler habitat. A Murfreesboro realtor writes, "But even with the growing demand, the Nashville area is still a reasonable market. Rolling hills covered with bright, green foliage makes the Middle Tennessee area a perfect place for families and business." That's bad news for timber rattlers.

On the web:
Timber rattlesnake conservation study at Cumberland University -- You-Tube video -- Professor Danny Bryan implants a radio device to track movement of a medium-size, male timber rattler for up to two years.

The Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus): How to tell if you actually saw one!

Public domain timber rattler photo from Wikipedia by TimVickers. Note the large scales on the body, small scales on the head above the eyes, elliptical (oval) pupils of the eye, triangular shape of the head, and comparatively small neck.

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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