All About Timber Rattlesnakes

Whether you know them as timber rattlers or canebrakes, these big, beautiful creatures pack a dangerous bite, so it's good to know their habits

Brandon Adams | May 26, 2023

Timber rattlesnakes, also known as canebrakes, are beautiful, yet they are also fear-inspiring and potentially dangerous. It pays to know this venomous snake’s habits—like where it likes to wait in ambush for food sources.

I was asked by several people to follow up the diamondback rattlesnake article from last year with one on timber rattlesnakes. Timber rattlesnakes have a much larger range in Georgia than diamondbacks. They can be found in the creek and river bottoms of southern Georgia where they are often called canebrakes, and along the rock-lined ridges in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Georgia and points in between.

Timber rattlesnake dens can be found in a variety of habitats. Timbers often den among the rocks on ridge lines and along the rockslides found in the Appalachian Mountains. Stump holes are also utilized by timbers to den in along with borrows created by other animals. I have often heard people call a small hole in the ground a snake hole, but only a few species of snake has the ability to burrow a hole, and only in very loose soil. Often, when a snake is seen in a hole, it has followed rodents like mice, rats and chipmunks as a feeding opportunity, or the snake is looking for shelter in an armadillo hole or other animal’s den. Timbers will also den along the undercut edges of creek and riverbanks. Dr. Clark and others in a study on timber rattlesnakes found that they tend to den near and where their mothers denned.

In Georgia, timbers usually den individually or in small groups; however, in northern states such as New York, dens can contain hundreds of timber rattlesnakes, according to Dr. Chris Jenkins of the Orianne Society. Timber rattlesnake hibernation in Georgia varies by location. In the mountains, timbers usually go to their dens in October and emerge in early April, but they can be seen sunning near their den sites on warm winter days. In the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions of Georgia, they, like diamondbacks, can be found out throughout the year while denning on colder days.

Like I talked about in the diamondback article last year in GON, roads have a major impact for timber rattlesnakes. Dr. Ruben Clark, among others, found the timbers are often not willing to cross roads, which creates a lack of genetic diversity due to inbreeding. Timbers are, however, attracted to the edges of roads for similar reasons as hawks and owls—because mice and rats are attracted to the food often thrown from cars, which is one of their main food sources. In their study, Dr. Clark found that with a rattlesnake’s first line of defense staying still and trusting in their camouflage can result in timber rattlesnakes being struck by cars because by the time they decide to move, it is too late.

A timber rattlesnake’s range can vary based on the availability of food. Dr. Chris Jenkins stated that they can range from hundreds of acres to 1,000 acres. They are often found in the hardwoods in the southern United States, and they are often found where the hardwoods meet the creek and river bottoms, which is where they get their other name of a canebrake rattlesnake. Timber rattlesnakes can also be found in pines, but not as often as hardwoods.

The biology of a timber rattlesnake is very similar to a diamondback rattlesnake. It is very rare to find a timber longer than 5 1/2 feet in length. Like I mentioned in my diamondback article, it is harder for a larger snake to remain hidden from humans and other animals that prey on snakes. Timber rattlesnake males can grow up to 60 inches and females rarely exceed 40 inches. The oldest known timber rattlesnake reached an age of 50 years, which I would have never suspected. In my conversation with Dr. Jenkins, he said that timber rattlesnakes tend to have from one to 20 offspring yearly with them having more in southern regions than in the North. He said the average is six to 12 offspring a year.

The diet of timber rattlesnakes can vary based on where their home range is found. In the data that I found in Dr. Clark’s research, it showed that mice make up the largest percentage of a timber rattlesnake’s diet at around 20.8%. Mice are followed by chipmunks at 10.6%, rabbits at 10% and rats at 6% making up the top 4 items that timber rattlesnakes are found to eat. In the southern United States, timber rattlesnakes tend to feed mainly on rabbits and cotton rats. In the northern part of their range, timbers tend to eat more mice, voles and chipmunks. In the North, timbers tend to feed more often due to the smaller size of their prey, I learned from Joseph Colbert, who also helped me with the diamondback article last year.

One unique thing I learned from my research was very surprising. Several animals, including two that timber rattlesnakes prey upon, have been recorded on videos set up by Dr. Clark harassing timbers while they are sitting in ambush locations. Three of the animals that have been videoed are chipmunks, gray squirrels and wood thrushes.  These encounters often result in timbers leaving their ambush sites or sunning locations. This behavior has now been documented with a variety of rattlesnakes throughout the United States. This could also be a clue to alert hunters, hikers and people fishing to the presence of a rattlesnake. I have seen this behavior myself with timber rattlesnakes on our own property in the Georgia Piedmont with chipmunks barking as timber rattlesnakes were moving along an oak ridge that I like to deer and turkey hunt on.

A timber rattlesnake will follow the scent trail of potential prey, like a mouse. Hunters filling a deer feeder should be particularly cautious around that feed station—it’s likely attracting rodents… and snakes.

Speaking of ambush sites, another way to avoid timber rattlesnake encounters is to know and avoid, or be vigilant, when you find yourself in these areas. Timber rattlesnakes, like other rattlesnakes, tend to be ambush predators. Joseph Colbert said that timbers tend to stay in one spot for long periods of time until they feed or have given up on that ambush site. Often these ambush sites are located at the base of a tree, rocks, fallen trees and limbs and brushpiles.  Dr. Clark found that timber rattlesnakes tend to select sites based on chemical trails left by prey. This tactic is much like a beagle or other hunting dog or tracking dog using scent and chemical trails to hunt and track their own game, or even us humans using visual clues to set up stand sites to hunt.

The feeding frequency of timber rattlesnakes, much like other snakes, varies based upon their prey and the air temperature. A timber rattlesnake that comes out of hibernation early runs the risk of starvation due to cold temperatures slowing their movements. However, colder temperatures also slow their digestion rates, which means they need to feed less often. When the temperature is warmer, their digestion is faster, meaning they will need to feed more frequently. Timber rattlesnakes in more northern latitudes feed on average one to three times a year in the mountains, and three to six times in more southern latitudes, depending on their food source. This can vary widely again depending on the size of prey the snake feeds on, and it has not been scientifically proven with data due to timber rattlesnakes’ varying range.

I was fascinated to learn in my conversations with Dr. Chris Jenkins that once a timber rattlesnake has envenomated their prey, it then uses the same chemical trails to select ambush locations to locate its prey that might run off after being injected with venom. It was very interesting to learn all the senses timber rattlesnakes use besides sight and heat that I knew of them using prior to my research.

Timber rattlesnakes are often seen more in the fall by hunters, hikers and people fishing due to it being when they are searching for mates during breeding season, I learned from Joseph Colbert. This is when I have often had my encounters with timbers myself.

The first encounter that I personally had with a timber rattlesnake was on a warm day in February near rock outcropping on our family land. I was walking in front, with my wife and parents following. I was very fortunate to spot the timber rattlesnake’s eye and see it coiled up in a sunny area along a trail we had cleared on our land. My left foot would have landed about 4 inches in front of the snake. My wife said she did not know that I could jump that high on one leg and do a 180-degree turn. It took her a few moments to understand what I was trying to say, which was “BIG snake.” Knowing what I have learned over the years, I understand perfectly why the timber rattlesnake was at that location. He had the granite rocks for hibernating. The warm February day got it out of its hibernation. The sun along the trail helped to warm him enough to give him a chance to ambush a chipmunk along the trail that had thick, overgrown edges.

A second encounter that I had with a timber rattlesnake was one crawling along the oak flat that I like to hunt. It made its way into the top of a blown-down oak, and slowly covered itself with leaves on a warm, early November day. What had been moving in front of where the timber decided to set up an ambush was chipmunks and gray squirrels all day long. It did not make it to that point until late in the day, and I never saw it take an animal, but I have no doubt that at some point it did. I now understand that it had sensed the chemical trails left by the chipmunks and squirrels.

By the time of this next encounter, I had become more familiar with the timber rattlesnakes on our land. I was on a gobbler during turkey season a few years ago, and he was working his way to me from our neighbor’s land when he decided to turn to the east. I knew I had to move to a different location, and I knew exactly where the gobbler was heading. As I was making my way to my new setup, something froze me in my tracks. I saw a squirrel in a shallow pool of water. My mind said, ‘Did this squirrel miss time its jump and break its neck on the fall?’ That was quickly passed as highly unlikely. The next thing that immediately entered my head was that it was likely killed by a rattlesnake. I began to scan my area to avoid stepping on the hidden snake. After about two minutes of scanning, I finally found the small timber rattlesnake coiled up about 4 feet away and about 2 feet from the puddle. Upon learning about how they use chemical trails to find their prey, I thought back to that encounter and wondered if that squirrel had frequently used that puddle as a source of water.

One of my good friends walking along a trail on a popular trout river in northeast Georgia stepped on a timber rattlesnake that was stretched out across a trail beside the river. He felt the snake hit his wader boot as he quickly stepped farther down the trail, turning to see the timber rattlesnake make its way into the ferns lining the trail.

I also have heard from a good friend of a gentleman who was struck by a timber rattlesnake near that same area a few years before. Fortunately, he knew to calmly walk back to the road at the trailhead where he waited for a passing car to stop and drive him toward town where they could get a signal. The fisherman luckily survived the encounter.

While my dad and I were fishing along a creek near our land after turkey hunting hoping to find some spawning white bass, we saw movement on a tree limb that had fallen partially into the water. As I directed the jonboat closer, I began to grasp what I was seeing. It was a rather large, thick timber rattlesnake with multiple smaller ones on the limb with it. I always assumed it was a female with several males attracted to a female. I shared my encounter with Dr. Jenkins, and he said it was likely timber rattlesnakes that had come out of their den site along the creek bank. He said that we could likely return to the location again and find timbers sunning there on a warm, late-winter day.

An area that once belonged to my great uncle along the Habersham-Banks County line was the home to large numbers of timber rattlesnakes.  My uncle would occasionally hunt on the land when it was still a cow pasture with oak ridges and flats. My uncle would often talk about watching them move in one direction in the mornings and back in the afternoons on warm, fall days while in the deer stand. This was the timber rattlesnakes moving from their dens sites on warmer days to hunt along ambush sites along the pasture edges where the brush was grown up or in the timber for squirrels.

With the encounters I have had over the years, I have gained a level of respect and appreciation for timber rattlesnakes and snakes in general.

I asked Dr. Chris Jenkins if there were any myths that he would like to address in our conversation. He said that timber rattlesnakes can only strike 1/3 to 1/2 of their body length. If you are not within 4 to 5 feet of them, you are most likely out of their strike zone. Timber rattlesnakes are sit-and-wait ambush predators and will not chase a person. If you are far enough away, you are not going to be bitten. People are often bitten by rattlesnakes because they try to kill them. The person was never in danger until they got closer to the snake to try and kill it. As mentioned previously, timber rattlesnakes, like diamondbacks, rely on their camouflage as their first form of protection—by nature they do not strike until they feel that their camouflage is not working, which is often after they have had someone try to hit them with a limb or some object.

Dr. Jenkins said the best thing that a person can do to avoid encounters with timber rattlesnakes is to always be observant and check their surroundings. He also recommended a quality pair of snake boots if you are hunting or fishing in areas that have timber rattlesnakes. Dr. Jenkins, who also loves to hunt and fish throughout the United States, also said one thing to always be careful of is when sitting at the base of a tree, as timber rattlesnakes often use that as ambush points.

Hopefully with this article I have helped you to learn more about timber rattlesnakes that are found throughout Georgia and the eastern United States.

If you would like to learn more about timber rattlesnakes and other reptiles in Georgia, including the eastern indigo snake, I highly recommend following the Orianne Society on social media, and also give a listen to their podcast. You can also find the research done by Dr. Clark with a quick internet search.

As always, I hope you learned something from the article, especially about an often misunderstood species. I have been very pleased with the reception of my article last year about the Eastern diamondback and the feedback I received from it.

As always, do not try to handle snakes. Timber rattlesnakes have their role in our ecosystems. Respect them and give them their space, and they will leave you be.

When you can, take a kid or someone new into the great outdoors. The more people who love and appreciate hunting and fishing, the longer it will be protected and preserved.

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  1. Bus1952 on June 29, 2023 at 9:26 am

    Can not get articles to load….. I have moved and still not got the May issue. New Address is 5020 Maple Ferry Court, Evans, Ga. 30802

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