First snake rattles into town

La Cañada homeowner Neal Peterson is a walking library of snake-encounter stories, beginning with the one about the rattler that slithered out from the boards of his house while it was under construction in 1975.

Then there was the five-footer who lashed out at his wife from its resting spot near a storage shed, and the rattler that was found dead next to the body of a cat who used up all nine of its lives in the deadly heat of battle. Dogs gone missing, gruesome shovel beheadings and fire-department dispatches to the occasional in-home invasion are nothing new to homeowners on Gleneagles Place and Starlight Crest. It’s all a part of living near the Hahamongna Watershed Park, a territory designated as an “urban interface, ” a place where houses and wildland vegetation coincide.

Rattlesnakes, lured by their innate reptilian desire for warmth, often make appearances in local neighborhoods in late April or May and can be seen into early autumn, says Los Angeles County Fire Captain Adrian Murrieta, who’s been on countless snake-wrangling missions in his seven years with the department. “We’ve seen a couple of rattlesnakes before that were 5 feet long. Over time, you just get used to dealing with them.”

Seeing snakes is nothing new, but this year’s rattler season seems to have gotten off to an unusually early start, said Peterson, who spied a small rattler in his yard early last week. “We’ve never missed a year of snakes, but this is the earliest we’ve ever seen them,” Peterson added.

The early sightings may be the result of rapid changes of weather patterns, including recent rains, said Tim Hovey, an associate fisheries biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. Hovey tracks populations of native fish, amphibians and reptiles throughout Southern California. In 2005, he received rattlesnake reports around the watershed area as early as January and February. “We found a den that had been completely washed out by rain — that may be what people are seeing now.”

Older, wiser rattlers team up and hunker down in spots known to stay dry, Hovey explained, but younger rattlers often take shelter in areas at high risk of flooding. If rain is followed by warm temperatures, these juvenile snakes may come out prematurely, still in a dormant state, where they are prone to attacks from crows and other large birds.

“They’re just completely defenseless,” said Hovey. “They’re not warm enough to move and they’re not warm enough to defend themselves from predators.”

Whatever the reason for the early sighting, Murrieta advised residents to be cautious and stay away from all rattlesnakes. If avoidance is, well, unavoidable, the fire department will assemble a team armed with a long restraint pole with a noose on the end — perfect for catching wayward reptiles.

“We will destroy them,” Murrieta said, describing the process in which the snake’s head is removed, placed in a can or receptacle and buried to prevent future exposure to the poison still inside the snake’s oral sacks.

The Hahamongna Watershed Park is home to more than 18 species of snakes. Among them, the rattlesnake is the only venomous species locally and throughout California. The park is also a natural habitat for many animals, from coyotes and bears to mountain lions and birds of prey.

Sharing land with wild neighbors is par for the course when you make the hillside your home, Peterson said, so the best you can do is walk softly and, in the case of an unruly rattler, carry a big shovel.

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