Massachusetts isn't generally considered rattlesnake country, and for the most part, it isn't. It is home to one species -- the timber rattlesnake, or Crotalus horridus. It's a good bet that most lifelong Bay State residents have never spied this snake, because it dwells in isolated areas and is considered endangered. By state law, endangered species cannot be collected or killed.
While the timber rattlesnake generally matures between 36 and 60 inches, individual snakes might grow as long as 74 inches. Body color varies, including brown, dark brown, gray, yellow or black, with a lighter belly. Dark, v-shaped crossbands form a pattern along the back. The snake's head is solid-colored, while its other end boasts a completely black tail and a rattle. Male timber rattlesnakes weigh up to 3.9 pounds, while the maximum female size is about 3 pounds. A member of the pit viper family, timber rattlesnakes differ from other American rattlesnakes by the lack of markings on the head.
The timber rattlesnake prefers woodlands and rocky areas with significant rodent populations, as small vermin are their primary source of food. The snakes are most active after dark, when their prey is also out searching for food. In warm weather, they bask during the day. According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, timber rattlesnake populations are known only in the Connecticut River Valley in the western part of the state, Berkshire County -- and the suburban Boston area.
Timber rattlesnakes have two large fangs in their mouth, capable of injecting venom into a victim. The snakes can control how much venom they eject when biting. Venom is employed primarily to paralyze prey, with the snake using its keen sense of smell to track and consume the animal. When in defensive mode, the timber rattlesnake prefers to escape rather than confront, but will strike and bite if necessary. While you should take precautions such as wearing boots and long pants when hiking in snake territory, keep in mind that the last known timber rattlesnake fatality in Massachusetts occurred in 1791, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Massachusetts is home to several other snakes similar in appearance to the timber rattlesnake. Members of the general public are far more likely to encounter these common species, which include the milk snake and northern water snake. When irritated, the milk snake vibrates its tail, which can sound like a rattle. The Eastern hog-nosed snake resembles the timber rattlesnake, but its head is quite wide and the snout is upturned.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.