Timber rattlesnake

A timber rattlesnake in Pennsylvania.

Snakes, and pretty much all reptiles across Pennsylvania, have launched into the annual fall move to denning and hibernation sites.

For many, like the snapping turtle, it’s a generally short trip. Often, it’s as simple as slinking down into the mud and reducing body functions.

For others, particularly the timber rattlesnakes and northern copperheads that are the source of worry for many in the outdoors, the trans-autumnal trek can cover a few miles. That can lead to a lot of sightings and reports of the snake along the way, not to mention misguided attempts on the reptiles’ lives.

The distance the reptiles range from their dens through spring and summer largely is dictated by the availability of prey and water.

Regardless of that distance, the snake’s move back to the den is now underway.

Timber rattlesnakes are in the process of returning to their den sites, from which they may have traveled as far as 5 miles since late spring. In summers of normal rainfall and abundant prey, the distance will be much less, and gravid females most usually stay within 200 yards of the den.

Rocky outcrops on the south-facing sides of mountains, where temperatures will remain around 50 degrees through winter, are the preferred den sites.

Adult rattlesnakes are following instinctive memory, clues on the landscape and the scent trails of others that moved ahead of them.

Young rattlesnakes, which were born in August and September, will find their way by following the scent trails of adults.

Copperheads are active April through early November, but rarely range more than 2 miles from their overwintering hibernation dens and basking areas on rocky outcrops and talus slopes.

In the heat of mid- to late summer, copperheads often become nocturnal, taking advantage of the humid, warm nights to pursue their prey under the darkness’s added protection from their own predators. But the cooler temperatures of fall will see a more diurnal existence.

Female copperheads give birth to one to 14, 7- to 10-inch-long babies in August through early October near the female’s overwintering site.

They hibernate in communal dens, though, not only with other copperheads but also with snakes of a variety of species, including rat snakes and rattlesnakes.

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