Here he was, our first snake of the year! Our first problem was going to be getting this rattlesnake into a different position, hopefully one in which he wasn’t hiding his head under a coil of his body. Not the best pose for a photograph, I figured. Whether he was doing this out of self-protection was hard to tell, but some snakes – even dangerous ones like this western diamondback – will hide their heads and hope for the best when threatened. Often this occurs after attempts to get away and to defend themselves have failed. Fight-flight-freeze: this is the trio of responses to stress that most animals, including humans, are equipped with. Your brain recognizes the threat and triggers the release of adrenaline, preparing you to fight the attacker or to run away. Or, if you are overwhelmed and nothing works, you freeze in place. We know that in humans the “freeze” response in traumatic situations can be accompanied by dissociation, a kind of numbing of reality in which you are really “not there.” It is one way our bodies and minds protect themselves from inescapable stress. The rattlesnake in front of us was not able to be interviewed or to have the activity of his nervous system measured, so it was hard to say whether he was experiencing traumatic stress.
What were we doing to this poor creature? We are two of the people least likely to intentionally harm a snake, but we love finding them. In the process of watching and photographing them, we may interfere with their movement or even briefly capture and reposition them, and for an animal that has no idea what our intentions are, this is stressful. A reasonable rule for a snake to follow is: when an animal much bigger than you starts to mess with you, it’s going to kill you and probably eat you. There is no reason to exempt naturalists from that rule, as far as the snake knows.
Here is what was going on from the perspective of the two humans. We climbed up a hillside on this ranch northeast of Abilene where Clint knew of a den used by western diamond-backed rattlesnakes. On this warm day at the end of winter, the snakes would be out sunning. And sure enough, near the edge of a ravine near the top of the hill, Clint spotted this four-foot rattlesnake enjoying the sunshine. When the snake spotted him, he tried to get away, but Clint is pretty good with a snake hook and so the serpent sat and rattled and waited, testing the air with his ebony-black tongue. I had climbed up the little ravine, carefully gauging each step up the crumbly soil and loose rocks and stood just below the snake, getting the camera ready. I used my own hook to pull a coil away from his head, trying to add to his stress only a little, not only for the snake’s well-being but also for mine. If he blindly attempted another escape and came down into the ravine with me, I was going to have my own sort of stress response. Having a four-foot long stressed-out rattlesnake at your feet while balanced precariously on loose rocks is not an ideal situation. But everything worked out nicely – our friend rattled and stayed in place for a little video clip and a couple of photos, and then we left him in peace. The snake had tried “flight” and maybe “freeze,” but never “fight,” showing just how reluctant they can be to use their venomous bite.
Moments later, Clint flipped a rock and surprised a western coachwhip. Here was a second snake, and we could still hear the first one buzzing his displeasure only a few yards behind us. Our strategy when we find a coachwhip is entirely different than the one for rattlesnakes. While rattlesnakes certainly cannot be grabbed with bare hands and sometimes sit where they are, coachwhips respond by instantly trying to flee and they are very fast and agile. While we can just watch them slip away, another option is to catch them for a closer look or a photograph. They are quick to bite, but the result is no more than a scratch. Seeing one of these magnificent snakes close up can be worth a scratch or two, and we did hang onto this one for a couple of photographs. As we released it, the alternating darker and lighter bands were easier to see, each band extending down several inches of the snake’s body. This is a fairly common pattern in many western coachwhips. While sitting still, the coachwhip’s scales are brown or tan with light edges, and those light cream-colored edges are bigger in the lighter sections of the snake’s body. The lighter edges also “break up” the light and dark colors of the bands. In motion, the colors blur a little, so that you don’t see light-edged scales, you just see lighter and darker bands. In just a moment this snake’s lithe and slender body had propelled it through cactus, thorn bush, and around rocks, and it was gone. These snakes are built strongly for the “flight” option when encountering a threat, although strangely enough, when captured they have sometimes been known to become still with the head turned to the side in a sort of death-feigning.
There were several more rattlesnakes nearby, on or partly under the big flat rocks on the hillside. A snake could warm up by shifting a loop of its body out into the sunlight while the rest of its body sheltered under the rock. None of these snakes had much reaction to our presence, except at times to move back beneath the sheltering rock.
Most of the plants had not leafed out, with the exception of the agarita, a beautiful plant with thin leaves looking a little like holly because of the spines at their tips. Clumps of these low shrubs were scattered over the hillside and down in the wash below, and their budding little yellow flowers gave the area a slightly sweet aroma in places. Later in the spring, agarita will produce red berries that people sometimes make into jelly. There are also historical reports of Native Americans using the root bark and other parts of the plant medicinally.
Several cactus species are common on this ranch. One that produces a low green dome with clusters of curved spines goes by a name sure to make you flinch – horse crippler. Another that often grows in clusters of two or three short cylinders is lace cactus. From ribs along these cacti grow thick rows of small, sometimes reddish spines. Prickly pear is a common cactus on the ranch, growing in the familiar flat pads which are generally green, though some of the plants are purplish or red. The other cactus that we saw was tasajillo, or pencil cholla. It struck me while I was looking for one to photograph that many of them were growing within a space occupied by one of the other woody, thorny plants. I later discovered that tasajillo, or Christmas cactus, often does just that, sending up its slender jointed stems in the midst of some other plant. Bumping up against tasajillo is not a pleasant experience since the spines are quite sharp and not easily dislodged. After brushing against it and getting stuck with spines, segments of the cactus easily break off so that the person or animal moves on carrying a little piece of the plant with them. Further down the road when the segment is brushed off or dislodged, it can sprout into a new plant if it lands in suitable soil. The little red fruits are edible, but watch out for those little glochids, the tufts of tiny spines that are very irritating (and seemingly invisible) when they lodge in your skin.
On another part of the ranch, we walked along a fence line through some brushy country that led up to another part of the hillside we had just visited. Clint moved ahead while I ambled along at a slower pace. One of the things I stopped for was the skull of a feral pig. These are wild descendants of pigs that got away from farmers and carved out a niche for themselves pretty much everywhere. They reproduce rapidly and populations have grown to become significant problems in many places in Texas. In a study that looked at sows trapped in a pig control program in north central Texas, Denkhaus reported an average litter size ranging from 5 to 11 piglets. The time required from breeding to farrowing suggested that pigs in north Texas may have one litter and start another during the same year.[i] With this fecundity and few natural predators, Denkhaus commented that feral pig populations have the potential to grow rapidly. Groups of feral pigs can dig up large patches of habitat and they devour virtually anything that they find.
I paused to post a comment that this skull was “the only feral hog so far, out on ranchland near Moran.” I kept walking, with the fence line on my left and a small gully surrounded by a thicket of shrubs on my right. Suddenly I heard sounds like something big and heavy, moving in a hurry – to my ears it sounded like a horse galloping. Then, about thirty feet ahead of me, a large feral pig broke out of the thicket and charged across my path and through the barbed wire fence. It was so fast and I was taken enough by surprise that I cannot tell exactly how it got through the fence. Did it go under? It was barely slowed by the fence and did not appear to duck down. Did it squeeze between the first and second strands? All I can say is that it squeezed through without slowing down and with no regard for the barbed wire.
Later in the day we did see a group of three or four pigs run across the road just ahead of where we had stopped the truck. I was glad that they seemed determined to get away from us quickly, because they were big, solid animals that I would not want to have charging me. I understand that a sow is quick to defend her piglets, and a cornered boar would be a dangerous adversary. Feral pigs are one of the good reasons to be alert to what’s going on around you when out in the field – and when that fails (as it did for me earlier in the day), just be glad that their first options seem to be freezing or fleeing, not fighting.
As the evening approached and light began to fade, we sat on the tailgate of Clint’s truck and talked about our day. We revisited the problem of feral pigs and how much impact they may be having on the land here. We talked about the array of crinoid stems, snails, and other fossils scattered in with gravel and broken rock, and the occasional arrowheads Clint and his wife find here. In the approaching darkness the mourning doves began calling from several places around us. That familiar low whistle – the first a low note rising briefly, followed by three low notes – it might seem mournful or maybe just calm and reflective. These are our own reactions to their calls, evocations of what might be stirring within the heart of a human who would sing such a tune. The doves themselves may have other ideas.
But in any case, the mourning doves’ calls accentuated the quiet in that place as we looked out across this little piece of the Rolling Plains. There were no highway sounds or any of the other mechanized noises that pervade our lives. It was a blessed stillness and peace, the kind that invites us to breathe a little slower and let go of all the things that keep us wound up. I am a fan of quiet places, as I have written before, and quiet is getting harder to find. A study published last year in Science described increasing levels of noise pollution even in protected areas within the U.S.[ii] Critical habitat for endangered species saw increases in noise levels, as did other places.
It became darker, and the silence continued. When it is quiet like that, you talk softly, if you talk at all. The doves became less vocal. And off in the distance, there were a few yips from a group of coyotes. We were staying a little longer for the quiet, and for those coyotes. The yips and then howls from scattered groups of these “song dogs” will capture your attention and your imagination out here in the darkness. We heard a few more coyotes, but then they were done. Sunset was over and so were the calls of doves and coyotes, and soon we reluctantly had to spoil the peaceful quiet at the base of the hillside by starting the truck and making our way home.
[i] Denkhaus, R. 2015. Notes on the reproductive potential of a north Texas urban wild pig (Sus scrofa) population. Post Oak & Prairie Journal, V.1#2, Pp.14-20.
[ii] Buxton, R.T., McKenna, M.F., Mennitt, D., Fristrup, K., Crooks, K., Angeloni, L., & G. Wittemyer. 2017. Noise pollution is pervasive in U.S. protected areas. Science, V.356, Issue6337, Pp.531-533.