A while ago I heard a tantalizing rumour: on a rural property in Fenwick a rattlesnake had been spotted. It was, according to the rumour, not an escaped or released pet, but an actual wild rattlesnake in the woods. Could it be?
Although encountering a rattlesnake today on say the Steve Bauer trail would be decidedly unexpected, difficult as it may sound to believe, there was a time when rattlesnakes were common in Pelham.
An old history of Upper Canada notes: “It is, perhaps, not generally known that the Niagara district was infested with adders, black snakes and rattlesnakes in the days of early settlement.”
In the 1780s, John DeCou, an early pioneer, described how after finishing his log cabin near what’s now North Pelham, it was invaded by rattlesnakes. The snakes were presumably attracted by the warmth the cabin offered. Also in the late 1700s, Lady Simcoe, wife of Upper Canada’s governor, visited Niagara and noted the incredible number of rattlesnakes. Simcoe further recorded that in Burlington some seven hundred rattlers were killed in just one summer.
Historically, there were two species of rattlesnake found in Ontario: the Massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) and the Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). Both are venomous, with enough toxin to make them potentially dangerous to humans. Of the two, however, only one still survives in Ontario, the Massasauga rattlesnake. The Timber rattlesnake, which is larger and more venomous, is extinct in the wild in Ontario (though they are still common in the US).
Deaths from rattlesnake bites in Ontario (especially from Timber rattlesnakes) historically did happen at least occasionally (though estimating precise figures is difficult). This grim reality reflected both the fact that such snakes were numerous and easily encountered in an era when people spent the vast majority of their time outdoors working in fields or forests, as well as the lack of effective medical treatment. Antivenoms hadn’t been invented yet, and most folk-cures for snakebites weren’t effective. Lady Simcoe on her visit to Niagara noted one such local cure: “Mr. McDonnell said that pounded crayfish applied to the wound was a cure for the bite of a rattlesnake.”
Both rattlesnake species native to Ontario saw their population decline drastically over the 1800s due to not only deliberate campaigns to kill them (often by destroying their nesting sites), but also habitat encroachment as forests were transformed into farmer’s fields, and especially the introduction of pigs, which killed many of the snakes. (Pig’s flesh is sufficiently thick that a rattlesnake’s fangs aren’t long enough to penetrate it, and feral pigs will eat rattlesnakes.) The Timber rattlers, perhaps owing to their much larger size, were exterminated completely from Ontario by the 1940s—the last confirmed sighting of one was in the Niagara Gorge.
As for Massasaugas, they still occur in the wild in Ontario along the rugged shores of Georgian Bay, as well as a smaller population near the Detroit River, and last but not least, a small, isolated population right here in Niagara in the Wainfleet Bog. The Bog is a unique habitat, the last refuge of the rattlesnake. Originally it covered over 52,000 acres, a vast morass of swamp forest and peat bogs. Today, only a few thousand acres remain, but crucially, this wetland forest provides habitat for species that have disappeared elsewhere in Niagara. If a rattlesnake really had recently turned up in Pelham, the Wainfleet Bog is likely where it originated.
If a rattlesnake really had recently turned up in Pelham, the Wainfleet Bog is likely where it originated
With rattlesnakes on my mind, I decided to explore the Bog with my friend Wes to see if we could locate any. It’d been years since I was last in the Bog, but I know it fairly well. When I was 17, I was lucky enough to have a summer job with the Ministry of Natural Resources. In that capacity, I got to work in the Wainfleet Bog as part of a rattlesnake study looking at soil conditions.
Wes and I entered the Bog from the north, parking at the end of a dusty farmer’s road. We crossed a field, then entered into the deciduous woods. It was swampy, and we crossed a stagnant pond before pushing deeper into the thick forest. Wes and I scoured the bog, searching for any rattlers, feeling secure in the knowledge that if we found one and it bit us, some pulverised crayfish applied to the wound would see us right. (Note: that’s a joke, don’t actually stick dead crayfish into a snakebite.)
Ducking under a fallen oak tree, suddenly we spotted a snake coiled up on the forest floor near a patch of poison ivy. It was a rattlesnake all right: it had a thick, muscular body, with a striking patterning to its scales, and a flat diamond-shaped head. The snake looked at us and rattled its tail. It was a potent reminder of the wildness that was once Niagara. We kept our distance, photographed it, then left in peace.
But could one of these snakes have ended up in Pelham? The Wainfleet Bog is only 4.4 kilometres from Pelham’s southern boundary, which is the winding course of the Welland River. The river is no impediment as rattlesnakes can swim, in fact they are excellent swimmers. So there is nothing physically impossible about a rattlesnake showing up in Fenwick. On the other hand, there hasn’t been any documented cases of rattlesnakes in Niagara outside the Wainfleet Bog in a very long time (at least that I can find).
Invoking Occam’s Razor, I think the most likely explanation is that the rumour was sparked by a snake that was misidentified. Niagara is home to several species that could be easily mistaken for a rattlesnake. In particular, the eastern hognose snake resembles a rattlesnake, and even imitates their behaviour by coiling up, poising as if to strike, and vibrating their tail as if it were a rattle. I’ve found a few of these hognoses snakes in the woods before, and can readily understand how someone might mistake one for a rattler. Milk snakes too, with their colourful patterning, could be mistaken for one. So could an eastern fox snake; a strikingly beautiful snake with a yellow-black colour patterning. My guess is that someone saw one of these more common species, and not recognizing it, misidentified it, giving birth to the rumour.
That said, it wouldn’t be impossible for a rattlesnake to turn up in Pelham. Stranger things have happened after all. ◆
Pelham native Adam Shoalts is the author of three national bestselling books, most recentlyBeyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic. He is the Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.