An article on GON.com in August created a stir among deer hunters. The story was about Brian Murphy, who was checking out his deer stands in Morgan County on August 13. He was shocked to find a 3-foot timber rattlesnake wedged into its lock-up foot seat 20 feet up in a tree.
Reaction to the story ranged from shock to disbelief. She had some wondering, “Could a rattlesnake really climb a tree?” A reader asked: “How could a 3 foot rattlesnake climb 20 feet on a leash tree stand?”
The short answer is that some rattlesnakes do climb trees, and rattlesnakes are better than most.
Zoologists at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, point out that timber rattlesnakes, especially young ones, are incredible climbers and have been documented in trees at heights of over 80 feet. A study from eastern Texas documented quite a bit of tree climbing among timber rattlesnakes, including a young timber rattlesnake that was nearly 50 feet up in a laurel oak tree.
the story in Brian Murphy’s encounter with the rattlesnake caused some to wonder why a rattlesnake would want to climb a tree. That’s easy, according to snake experts. The trees provide access to prey such as squirrels and birds, or to escape a predator on the ground.
“You’ll never find an eastern diamondback in a tree, but a timber rattlesnake in a tree isn’t that uncommon,” said Jason Clark of Southeastern Reptile Rescue in Griffin. “They are not like the rat snakes that climb every day, but they are good climbers. I’d say it’s rare for one to be in a deer stand. That snake didn’t get on that stand because it caught the scent of a deer hunter. My guess is that a squirrel was using that tree and had left a scent trail all over the tree,” said Jason, who does the snake shows at Ag-Pro GON Outdoor Blast.
“If a timber rattlesnake is climbing a tree, it is after some kind of prey. Most of the time it’s a squirrel, but they will also climb to catch birds.”
Timber rattlesnakes are good climbers. They may find their way onto fancy 4 x 4 or 6 x 6 porch supports to reach little birds in nests in hanging flower baskets. They can easily climb trees with vines and lots of branches, but they can also easily climb a tree with rough bark, Jason said.
Brian Murphy, the wildlife biologist who found the timber rattlesnake at his deer stand, says the white oak where he found the snake was slippery, limbless and large enough that he probably couldn’t hug it. He says there is no way the rattlesnake could have gone up that way.
“I’m 98% sure he climbed that tree using the climbing sticks,” he said. “I think that’s the only way she could have gotten there.”
Brian said he’s talked to numerous herpetologists he knows, and he agrees with them that the only reason the rattlesnake was because it was up in the tree looking for prey.
Rattlesnake 20 feet off the ground in the Treestand seat!
“They say they will climb trees looking for squirrels and birds, but this was a small snake and I don’t think it could take on a squirrel,” Brian said. “I don’t even know if I could handle a baby squirrel. It was a white oak, so it makes sense that there were squirrels in that tree, but I think a biologist gave a better explanation. He said that when there is a big cicada hatch, the rattlesnakes will climb a tree and eat them. The snake was wedged into the folding seat, at the perfect height and about 4 inches from the tree, so he could look over and grab a cicada.”
Brian said that he has had many personal responses to the story, but no one has questioned its validity. Laughing, he said he might have questioned the story himself if he hadn’t witnessed it himself.
“I have been a biologist for many years,” he said. “You can take a lot of these stories that I hear with a grain of salt.”
Brian said he’s not afraid of snakes. He said that at the time he didn’t feel threatened, but afterwards he felt a bit lucky.
“I spent a lot of time in Texas when I was younger,” he said. “When everyone went to the beach and chased girls, I would catch rattlesnakes for their roundups,” she said.
“With the snake on my stand, I wasn’t particularly scared. It was hot and I was sweating. I had 19 mounts to check, and I was at number 17. I was checking ratchet straps and spraying wasps. I found quite a few wasps under the folding seats. I knew to look for wasps under the seats, but it never occurred to me to look for a snake in the crack between the seat and the tree. I was on the stand for a good three or four minutes before I saw him. I was replacing the ratchet straps on the mount and my forearm was only 3 or 4 inches from it. Thank God he was very placid.”