The diet of rattlesnakes is made up of small animals such as rabbits, lizards, rats, mice, gophers and other ground-dwelling animals.
Since rattlesnakes can be found in forests, deserts, rocky hillsides, grassy plains and the coastal region, their diet changes depending on what animals are available within their habitat.
Rattlesnakes are pit vipers meaning they can sense heat using organs placed in pits close to the eyes. The adaptation makes it possible for the predators to identify the heat map of their prey during the night. Rattlesnakes use the pits to strike accurately since the environment is cooler than the heat signatures of the prey.
What do Rattlesnakes Eat?
While rattlesnakes will consume any animal that they can easily kill and swallow, they prefer warm-blooded ones. Once they spot their prey, they usually strike them within seconds and inject venom that is filled with hemotoxins.
These toxins destroy blood cells and cause organ degeneration. The venom is so potent that it starts digesting prey before it is even swallowed.
Rattlesnakes mostly prefer to feed on the following animals.
1. Rats and Mice
Rodents are one of the most common and easy to kill prey. That is why most snakes, including rattlesnakes, regularly feed on rats and mice.
Rattlesnakes are ambush hunters; therefore, they tend to locate rat holes/burrows, lie silently and wait to pounce on unsuspecting rats and mice. Using Jacobson’s organs, the snake detects mice in their hideouts and may wait for them to come out to feed or follow them to their hideouts.
Rabbits might be bigger than mice and rats; however, rattlesnakes still prey on young rabbits.
Wild rabbits make ideal meals since they come out to feed during the evening. While rattlesnakes are not entirely nocturnal, they tend to be more active at night during warm summer months.
As such, during such periods, they will readily capture and eat rabbits. With their sharp sense of body temperature, the rattlesnakes stalk the rabbits as they feed and attack them with their fangs, leaving them immobile.
The snakes swallow their prey whole. It takes a rattlesnake about 30 minutes to swallow a whole rabbit.
That said, most rattlesnakes are not large enough to swallow a fully grown adult rabbit.
Juvenile rattlesnakes generally prefer eating lizards and small insects as compared to adult snakes that prefer eating bigger animals such as rabbits and birds.
The Juveniles prefer hunting the lizards in rocky areas where they are mostly found basking in the sun or feeding on insects.
Also, most young rattlesnakes are known to be opportunistic feeders. As such, even though lizards do not constitute a rattlesnake’s main diet, young ones will not miss a chance to feed on these reptiles.
If a rattlesnake lives in the same rocky and swampy environment as frogs, they tend to hunt the frogs when they come out of the water to bask.
During this time, the frogs are not alert, and they do not see the snake approaching.
Rattlesnakes enjoy eating frogs since they are readily available in rocky areas and easy for the snakes to catch and swallow.
Rattlesnakes also love their share of poultry. These snakes will feed on small birds such as wrens, house finch, and sparrows.
While birds are pretty hard to catch, a rattlesnake will stay low on the ground with great camouflage and wait for any unsuspecting bird to land close by.
From a short distance, the snake strikes and drops its whole body weight on the bird. The snake pins the bird down and holds the bite waiting for the venom to paralyze the bird.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does size affect a rattlesnake’s diet?
Rattlesnakes do not have a reputation of being massive, and they vary from three to five feet in length with a weight of 2.5pounds. Some snakes may extend to seven feet, but a type of rattlesnake known as the ridged nosed rattlesnake rarely grows past two feet and can be shorter than 12 inches.
Although most of the growth happens in the early years of the rattlesnakes, eating habits largely determine how big they become. Small rattlesnakes feed on insects and tiny rodents since they are more energetic and less sedentary, while the larger snakes feed on larger animals that make them grow longer.
What do rattlesnakes eat in the desert?
The adaptations of rattlesnakes allow them to survive in almost any habitat across the USA. In deserts, they play an essential role in balancing the ecosystem. Food is rare in deserted regions, so rattlesnakes prefer to eat smaller snakes, birds, lizards, and rodents.
Due to the hot climate of the desert, animals rarely come out to bask, but the pit vipers of the rattlesnakes assist them in hunting the small rodents and other reptiles in their nests. Also, the desert rattlesnakes are adapted to survive on only small rodents and lizards.
How long do rattlesnakes stay without feeding?
Since rattlesnakes feed on various animals, the larger the prey, the longer it will take to digest. After rendering their food immobile using their venom, rattlesnakes swallow their food slowly for almost 20-30 minutes.
The snakes swallow their prey after they are entirely paralyzed but not necessarily dead. The snakes can limit the amount of venom they inject into their prey, thus making it easier to kill their catch.
After feeding on their prey whole, the rattlesnake finds a safe location where they rest and digest. The snakes digest their food for several days, during which they remain inactive and sluggish.
A study conducted showed that rattlesnakes could stay without food for months and continue to develop. However, in the wild, the snakes hunt mostly two weeks after eating their last meal.
Are Rattlesnakes carnivores, herbivores or omnivores?
Rattlesnakes are obligate carnivores and can only survive on a strict meat diet. Their favorite meals are mice, birds, rats, frogs, rabbits and lizards. The pits that sense the heat signatures of animals indicate that rattlesnakes are designed to hunt warm-blooded mammals.
What time do rattlesnakes prefer to hunt?
The best time for rattlesnakes to find and hunt down their prey is at night and sometimes at dusk. The main reason is because of their specially designed pits situated on either side of their head. The pits assist the snakes in sensing the heat signatures of their targets, allowing them to strike accurately.
The pits work similarly to night vision glasses during the night, allowing the snake to locate mammals using their body temperature easily. The temperature difference between animals and the atmosphere at night makes it easier for the rattlesnakes to hunt their prey without seeing them.
Additionally, the rattlesnake’s tongue can sniff the scent of prey which helps the snake follow their food for long distances guided by the heat they emit.
How do rattlesnakes swallow large animals using their small mouths?
Since rattlesnakes feed on mammals as big as rabbits, they have a unique adaptation that allows the snake to increase its gape to fit the prey they swallow. The snakes’ lower mandibles are not joined like those in other animals. Rattlesnakes have a stretchy ligament that attaches each mandible at the front.
As a result, each mandible of the snake can easily widen laterally to increase the mouth’s width when swallowing large prey. Another advantage of the mandibles is that they loosely connect to the back of the head, thus providing greater space for rotation as compared to other animals. The mandibles move separately, giving the snake enough room to swallow the prey inch by inch until it’s done.
Rattlesnakes are mainly found in the American Southwest and Mexico. As such, they tend to feed on prey found in such areas. This includes birds, rodents, rabbits, lizards and frogs. Nonetheless, just like most snakes, rattlesnakes are opportunistic feeders, and they will eat any animal they can kill and swallow.
Joe is a freelance writer for FaunaFacts. Joe has written extensively about snakes for the site, but also contributes content about a range of animals.