When Do Rattlesnakes Come Out (Most Active At What Time of Year?)

Written by Brandi Allred
Updated: March 1, 2023
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Key Points

  • Rattlesnakes’ territory extends through a huge portion of the Americas. As such, local climates and seasons determine their annual cycles.
  • In habitats where the temperatures drop low enough, these snakes emerge from brumation in early spring and stay active until the beginning of fall.
  • Rattlesnakes tend to be most active at sunrise and sunset and, if the weather is right, they can also be out at night or in the middle of the day in full sunlight.

Rattlesnakes, also called rattlers, are responsible for more snakebites in North America than any other type of snake. There are over 50 species of rattlesnake, including the timber rattlesnake, eastern diamondback, western diamondback, Mojave rattlesnake, and prairie rattlesnake. Rattlers come out to eat, sun themselves, and find mates. They are members of the pit viper family of snakes—so named for the pits near their eyes. They rely on the heat of the sun to keep their bodies warm.

Like most pit vipers, rattlesnakes have relatively poor vision that relies mainly on movement. But, they have a secret weapon that allows them ‘see’ no matter what time of day or night it is: heat vision. That’s right! Those little pits on their heads actually allow them to sense heat and strike with deadly accuracy.

With such a formidable array of senses, and deadly, venom-injecting fangs, it’s important to know just when rattlesnakes come out. Here, we’ll learn a little more about recognizing rattlers and where to watch for them. Then, we’ll explore the times of the year to avoid rattlers, as well as whether or not you should watch out for them at night. After, we’ll go over the steps you should take when and if you ever encounter a rattler.

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What Do Rattlesnakes Look Like?

eastern diamondback rattlesnake curled up in grass
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest species of rattlesnakes.

©iStock.com/NajaShots

Rattlesnakes range from under two feet long to over eight feet long, with the eastern diamondback being the largest species. Most species have a distinct diamond pattern of alternating light and dark scales running down their body. Bullsnakes have a similar appearance, but they lack a few of the key features that make rattlesnakes unique. 

Unlike bullsnakes, rattlesnakes have spade-shaped heads that are very wide at the base of the skull. They also, of course, have rattles. The one exception to this is in baby rattlesnakes. Baby rattlers are born with only one rattle segment and can’t rattle until they grow at least three segments.

Rattlers have one more distinctive feature: their fangs. Rattlesnakes come out to hunt small mammals, birds, and reptiles. When they strike, their fangs open like switchblade knives—they can grow up to half an inch in length. Bullsnakes and other nonvenomous snakes in North America don’t have such impressive fangs or even any fangs at all.

rattlesnake poised to strike
Rattlesnakes have spade-shaped heads.

Where Do They Live?

It may seem counterintuitive to those of us who have always pictured rattlesnakes in the desert southwest, but rattlers actually live all over North America, Central America, and South America. They can be found as far north as southern Canada and as far south as Argentina. Like all snakes, rattlesnakes come out to warm their bodies in the sun, no matter where they are.

Rattlesnakes are highly adaptable to different climates and regions; they can be found in deserts, forests, scrublands, and even swamps. So, just because you’re hiking in a lush pine forest doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch out for rattlers.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)
Rattlesnakes live all over north, central, and south America.

©Alexander Wong/Shutterstock.com

Lifespan

Rattlesnakes are a species of venomous snake found all across the Americas. Their lifespan varies greatly depending on the species, but generally speaking, rattlesnakes can live for up to 20 years in the wild, with some individuals living even longer.

In captivity, they may live well into their 30s or 40s due to better care and conditions. Rattlesnakes tend to reproduce once every two years, and females usually give birth to between 2-12 young at a time. The babies are born with functioning fangs and venom glands so that they can protect themselves from predators right away.

eastern diamond back rattlesnake on road
Rattlesnakes can live into their 20s in the wild.

©Chase D’animulls/Shutterstock.com

Threats

Rattlesnakes are considered to be of “Least Concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, meaning that they are not currently facing extinction. However, their populations in some areas have declined due to habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by human activities such as urbanization, agricultural development, and deforestation. Additionally, changes in land use patterns can lead to increased contact between rattlesnakes and humans, which can result in more snake bites or the intentional killing of snakes out of fear.

Climate change is also having an impact on rattlesnake habitats since it causes extreme weather events such as drought or flooding, which can reduce available food resources or create unsuitable conditions for these cold-blooded animals. Finally, illegal poaching by collectors continues to be a threat that needs to be addressed if we want future generations to continue enjoying the presence of rattlesnakes in our ecosystems.

rock rattlesnake
Like all of us, rattlesnakes are negatively affected by habitat loss.

©Kevin Wells Photography/Shutterstock.com

What Months Do Rattlesnakes Come Out?

The yearly cycle of rattlesnakes is extremely dependent on the local climate. But, most spend their winters brumating in dens with tens to hundreds of other snakes. Brumation is similar to hibernation; during brumation, their metabolism slows down, and they do very little other than sleep away the cold months. 

Rattlesnakes come out in early spring and stay active until early fall. This may change depending on the weather—the hottest months of the year may bring about another period of reduced activity for them, called estivation. Rattlers like it warm, but not too warm, so they’re most likely to be active during the spring and fall—the same times of year that humans like to spend outdoors.

Mojave Rattlesnake
Rattlesnakes come out mostly during spring and fall.

©Creeping Things/Shutterstock.com

Do Rattlesnakes Come Out at Night?  

Unlike other animals, who only come out in the day or only at night, rattlesnakes come out at all times of the day or night. They are diurnal, nocturnal, and crepuscular, depending on weather, wildfires, temperature, and prey availability.

Rattlesnakes come out both at sunrise and sunset, making them crepuscular. Often, these are their most active times, but they also come out in the full sun and full light. Creatures that are active in the day are known as diurnal, while nighttime animals—like owls—are nocturnal. Rattlesnakes, however, are both. They are extremely adaptable and will stay awake at whatever time suits them best.

Largest Rattlesnake
Rattlesnakes generally don’t see humans as threats, and they are also typically not aggressive.

©Mark_Kostich/Shutterstock.com

The Best Times of the Year to Avoid Rattlesnakes

If you’re looking to avoid rattlers, then you need to know when rattlesnakes come out and when they’re most active. Winter is the least active time of the year for rattlers, though most people don’t hike in the winter months. Rattlesnakes also slow down at the height of summer, when the heat is at its worst. But, again, this is also the time of the year that they’re most active at night, sunrise, and sunset.

Unfortunately for avid outdoors people, the best times of the year for hiking and camping are also the best times of the year for rattlesnakes to come out. So, if you don’t want to camp in the frigid winter months, your best bet is to go ahead with your outdoor activities, but only after learning a little bit about rattlers. And you should know the dos and don’ts of hiking or camping in rattlesnake country.

Huge Rattlesnake Blocks Florida Road Cover image
When walking or hiking through rattlesnake territory, know what to look for.

How to Avoid Encounters

The first step is obviously to know when you are in potential rattlesnake habitats. When you’re walking, camping, or hiking in these areas, there are a few things you can do.

Keep a clear sight of your path and try to step in open sections of ground that aren’t obstructed by brush. Use a walking stick to occasionally disturb the brush around your path and scare off any unwanted wildlife.

Wear boots and/or that cover your ankles, and wear gloves when picking up rocks and other objects off the ground. Keep your hands and feet away from crevices, ledges, and other places snakes may hide in/under.

Rattlesnake
Rattlesnakes evolved in North America.

©Scott Delony/Shutterstock.com

What to Do If You See a Rattler

At heart, rattlesnakes don’t want to hurt us. In fact, they see us as threats, not as dinner. Because of this, rattlesnakes don’t hunt people, and they’re typically not aggressive. They would rather stay hidden and not risk their lives in a fight with a human. But, sometimes, things happen, and humans and rattlesnakes come together.

If this happens to you, the first thing to remember is that rattlers are dangerous wild animals and should be admired from a distance. Do not approach or make any attempt to handle rattlesnakes, no matter how interesting they may be. Move away slowly from them, take pictures from a safe distance, and leave them to hunt rodents another day.

Florida Rattler
Rattlesnakes are shy and don’t want to hurt you. Back away slowly.

©iStock.com/Paulo Almeida

Rattlesnake versus Bullsnake

The two species of snake, the rattlesnake, and the bullsnake, are both members of the pit viper family. The most obvious difference between them is their size. A full-grown rattlesnake averages around three feet long compared to six or more for an adult bullsnake. Another major distinction between these two snakes is in their coloring. Rattlesnakes have distinctive markings, which often consist of black, brown, yellow, and white stripes running along their body and tail. Bullsnakes tend to be plainer, with light tan or gray bodies covered in dark blotches.

In terms of temperament, Rattlesnakes are much shyer than Bullsnakes, so they will usually retreat if threatened, whereas Bullsnakes may instead become aggressive as a defensive mechanism. As far as diet goes, Rattlesnakes primarily feed on small mammals such as rodents, while Bullsnakes eat anything they can catch, including lizards and frogs.

Up Next…

It’s always smart to stay informed about the behaviors of potentially dangerous animals when you’re spending time in their territory. Read up some more on the infamous rattlesnake.

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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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