?If a rattler
strikes an ax head, the metal will become discolored and the infected piece
will break. On the other hand, if a rattler strikes an ax handle, it will swell
until the head is popped off the shaft. If a rattler bites a piece of meat, the
meat will turn green.
?If a bee stings a
rattler, the bee will soak up venom that will not hurt it but will be fatal to
anything the bee stings.
?On the useful
side, puree of rattlesnake, rattles and venom is good for toothaches,
tuberculosis, chills, fevers, rheumatism, ringworm, deafness, bad complexion
and acid indigestion.
These claims made
against and for rattlesnakes are selected from among hundreds available. They
all have been proved false, but during the course of 35 years of talking about
rattlers with a variety of people, I have found somebody who believes each one.
In some cases suspects is perhaps a more accurate word than believes. A cowboy
will say, for example, that it seems improbable that a rattler will poison
water but he has heard good secondhand reports of this happening and that until
he has better information he is not about to drink out of Yaqui Springs, which
is a notorious rattler hangout.
By no means are
all of the believers ignorant backwoodsmen. In fact, the farther removed people
are from the company of rattlers the more inclined they are to be gullible
about them. I know of one corporate lawyer who believes (because he was told it
was so as a boy by the family gardener) that the fore rattle of a snake
contains dust that will cause blindness. On the other hand, there is a
Tennessee moonshiner, a qualified backwoodsman, who has heard this evil dust
story, knows that it is an old wives' tale and will prove it by grinding up a
rattle and sprinkling the powder on his food. However, this man also pulverizes
rattles, mixes the powder with a quart of raw moonshine and spreads the mixture
around his still when he is working there. He does so because his granddaddy
told him this was a good way to keep down rattlers.
Beyond what might
be called rattlesnake unnatural history—that is, information that somebody once
or still believes to be true—there is an abundance of rattlesnake whoppers.
These are tall tales that not many believe but that provide good yarns. One of
these is sufficient to suggest the flavor of many. The story is told in the
Seven Mountains of Pennsylvania that a man set out to build a cabin. In
dressing the first log he disturbed a rattler, which sank its fangs into the
timber. The log began to swell from the venom and continued to swell until it
provided enough lumber for a 12-room house. When the building was finished, the
man painted it, forgetting the well-known properties of turpentine for
neutralizing rattler poison. After the first coat of paint the house began to
shrink and eventually was reduced to the original log.
Nothing could be
so clever, diabolical and stout as the mythical rattlesnake. Nevertheless,
real, flesh-and-blood rattlers are remarkably interesting and indeed
formidable. They belong to a family known as the pit vipers, which includes two
other venomous American snakes, the copperhead and cotton-mouth. Pit vipers are
thought to have originated in the Mexican highlands and to have moved north and
There are 15 known
species of native rattlesnakes. (A rattlesnake is any pit viper with a rattle.)
Though these seem to do best in dry warm country, they are found all the way to
the Canadian border (and even beyond) in a variety of habitats: woodland,
swamp, coastal, prairie, rocks and sand. The optimum temperature range for
rattlers is 80� to 90�. Being warm-blooded, they cannot survive ground
temperatures above 105� to 110�. Therefore in very hot weather they usually go
underground during midday and hunt by night. Below 55�, rattlers become
inactive and they may die in freezing weather so they seek hibernation dens in
the fall and remain there until spring.
catholic taste in habitat, rattlesnakes have existed at one time or another
almost everywhere in the U.S. There are now a few localities where rattlers
have been exterminated ( Delaware and Maine, for instance).
Females mate when
they are two or three years old and bear their young in broods of a dozen or
so; thereafter they show little maternal concern. In myth, great age is often
attributed to rattlers, but in fact a 10-year-old has led a full life. There
are reports of individuals living 20 years, but this is exceedingly rare. The
notion that the number of rattles on the tail indicates the number of years the
beast has lived is false. A rattle is added each time the snake sheds its skin,
which in young animals may occur three or four times a year. Also, longer
strings of rattles usually break off because they are brittle. Reports of huge
rattle strings, containing 40 to 80 segments, are often heard. However, it is
easy to fabricate long chains by taking the rattles of many snakes and
fastening them together.