Snakes From A Plane

The Legend Of Airdropped Rattlesnakes

Do state game agencies really introduce rattlesnakes by tossing them out of aircraft? Three experts weigh in on the facts, origin, and future of the enduring story.

Throughout a herpetology career that has spanned more than 25 years at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, biologist Kristin Wiley has heard one particular reptile fable crop up repeatedly.

“All of New England, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, both Carolinas, Virginia — essentially the entire northeast part of the United States — I have had someone claim that it had happened there,” she said. “And it’s always the same story, which is interesting.”

That would be the legend of rattlesnakes raining from the sky, introduced to an area via airdrop from helicopters or planes. If it sounds hard to believe, there’s good reason.

Illustration of brown rattlesnakes wearing orange parachutes dropped from a blue airplane
Timber Rattlesnakes with parachutes dropped from an airplane? Illustration by Emma Hsiao.

“Definitely there are never, and never have been, any rattlesnakes intentionally released out of a helicopter or an airplane to repopulate or additionally populate an area,” Wiley said. “That is not a thing.”

Wiley explained that while the stories tend to be similar, the rationale varies — people think the serpents’ numbers are being boosted, or they’re being used to control turkey populations, or keep people from wandering off-trail.

“I think that it’s just gotten warped from some other stuff being mashed together,” she said of the tall tale. “It’s a game of telephone, right?”

“It’s a very strange, bizarre myth that people have,” said Kevin Oxenrider, Amphibian and Reptile Program Leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “I’ve received so many emails from people angrily telling me that they watch us doing it.”

“We’re not. I can promise you we’re not doing it.”

“You’ve got to read between the lines”

In folklore terms, airdropping rattlesnakes is not actually a myth — it’s a legend. Myths are more centered around creation stories and happen in the distant past, while legends take place in the present, said Stephen Michael Lochetto, a doctoral student in American Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. His work overlaps with folklore and anthrozoology, the study of human-animal interactions, and he also serves as an associate professor at Delaware County Community College.

Legends often reflect something about the people who believe them, Lochetto said. “You’ve got to read between the lines, essentially. There’s more going on than just what the story is talking about. A lot of these legends about snakes, for example — they reflect what’s called human anxieties.”

Snakes are often maligned in news stories and have a bad reputation in religious tradition, Lochetto said, adding that studies show humans have a brain-based mechanism to detect the slithery creatures much quicker than other species. This doesn’t mean humans are afraid of them, he noted. “It just means we have a greater sensitivity to what a snake looks like.”

If snakes actually were falling from the sky, they wouldn’t be the first creatures to do so. In 1948, in a bid to alleviate human-animal conflict, the Idaho Fish and Game Department relocated beavers into rural parts of the state via parachute. Today, aircraft are used to stock fish like trout, and Wiley thinks the legend of rattlesnake airdrops might have started there, when people conflated the practice with research studies that transported rattlesnakes short distances.

Oxenrider theorized the falling fish had something to do with it, as well. He also suggested that when people are confused by helicopters completing forestry work — like removing trees or dispersing invasive species treatment — and spot a rattlesnake afterwards, they assume a connection between two things they find odd.

“A lot of the times when we get them, that’s exactly what it is,” he said. “‘We saw this helicopter and then a week later, we saw two rattlesnakes within a week, and that’s just so strange, we’ve never seen them before, and did you release these rattlesnakes?’”

Lochetto thinks the legend could stretch back a couple of decades. It’s very difficult to pin down where a legend originates, he said, and no academic study of the story exists to his knowledge. “A lot of these stories have some kernel of truth,” he said. “There has to be something that made someone think this, and from there, imaginations can go wild with things.”

“Dropping them anywhere is not necessarily going to mean success”

Close-up of a baby Timber Rattlesnake's face. He has large eyes with vertical pupils, tan face with dark brown markings, and there's a bit of orange streaked down his back.
Timber Rattlesnakes do not eat Turkeys, but they may be eaten by Turkeys. Especially little ones like this baby; photo by Marisa Ishimatsu, StonePines Studios.

The logistics of a rattlesnake airdrop would be nightmarish. Individual parachutes wouldn’t be feasible, since snakes would wriggle out of a strap, Wiley said, and if you instead stashed the snakes in a container that hit the ground with enough force to break open, “you really haven’t solved the problem of the rattlesnake not hitting the ground very hard.”

Couple that with the fact that state agencies don’t have much money for nongame programs, according to Oxenrider — “I don’t think people realize how expensive getting a helicopter and renting a helicopter is,” he said — and the chances of taking to the sky with rattlesnakes look slim.

Even putting methods aside, moving animals to a new place can present challenges. “Reintroduction is not easy to do,” Oxenrider said. “It’s not as simple as like, I just put this thing out there and it’s going to persist.”

For rattlesnakes in particular, a new home would mean several problems. They need to find places where they can spend the winter and will sometimes reuse sites, Oxenrider said. He explained that in many places around the country, snakes need to overwinter in specific areas, so “just dropping them in the middle of nowhere, dropping them anywhere, is not necessarily going to mean success. Because if they can’t find some place to overwinter, get down below the frost line, they’re going to die.”

Rattlesnakes would also struggle to find food and water in a new location, Oxenrider said, and individuals take a hefty 7 to 12 years to reach sexual maturity.

Despite these challenges, certain states have considered trying to reestablish populations where rattlesnakes once lived, he said — a move that comes with a sizable public outcry.

Wiley said most government agencies would be extremely reluctant to move rattlesnakes, and even if there was significant benefit to a longer-distance trip, the serpents’ stigma would make it “very uncommon.”

“Because people are not going to be happy about it.”

“People like good stories”

A lot of legends survive because they act as coping mechanisms to help people deal with what’s going on around them, Lochetto said. Many think legends are old-fashioned, he added, but a good number can probably be found in a digital context.

“Legends are alive and well, and a lot of people don’t realize that,” he said.

Lochetto suggested a large part of the airdrop story’s durability could be due to the subject species — the idea of dropping squirrels from airplanes doesn’t have the same effect as venomous serpents, he said. But stamping out this legend might not be as simple as singing snakes’ praises: changing someone’s mind requires a connection, Wiley said.

“Unfortunately, if it were true that you could just give someone a really great explanation and they would believe you, I think the world would be a lot different than it is currently,” she said. “But that is not how things work.”

Wiley suggested talking with children, arguing the need for a shift in how humans look at the planet and its resources — something she said most adults are probably too stuck in their ways to do.

The younger generation may usher in a future where rattlesnake airdrops are no longer believed a real occurrence. But for now, the legend lives on, and Oxenrider doesn’t believe it will ever disappear. “I just think it sounds fun,” he said, submitting that the tale persists “because people want it to continue.”

“I think it’s just a good story,” said Wiley. “People like good stories. It’s got humor, it’s got something surprising, it’s got a rattlesnake in a helicopter in it.”

“What more do you want from a story?”

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