By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It's wise to give them a wide berth.

But rattlesnakes really are fascinating to look at, according to Travis Taggart.

Taggart's attitude isn't much of a surprise, when you consider that he's associate curator of herpetology for Sternberg Museum of Natural History and should have a "I brake for snakes (dead or alive)" on the bumper of his car.

Rattlesnakes are relatively common in Ellis County and much of northwest Kansas, but Hays is a relatively sharp line of demarcation for two species -- the prairie and the massasauga rattlesnake.

"They're both very abundant," Taggart said. "When you run out of one territory, you get in the other one."

Generally speaking, prairie rattlesnakes are in the western half of Ellis County, while the massasauga is in the eastern half.

Taggart said he's found both species within a mile of Hays.

While often frightening, rattlesnakes don't cause many problems in the area, and generally eat small mammals, such as deer mice, voles and even something as large as kangaroo rats.

Once a snake has established its home turf, it generally stays in that area unless it must travel farther to find something to eat. Most times, a mile is about all that a snake will travel, unless they are in need of food.

Snakes most often stick close to where they hibernate.

"They generally hibernate in the same place every year," Taggart said.

Prairie rattlesnakes prefer rocky outcroppings, while the massasauga is likely to use existing burrows for shelter.

Rattlesnakes are likely among the top three snake species in the county, with the bull snake -- a non-venomous snake -- by far the most abundant.

But of the snakes that are seen, such as those sunning themselves on the road, the prairie rattler is likely the second most abundant.

Rattlesnakes are thought to live seven to eight years in the wild, and up to 30 years in captivity, Taggart said.

The number of rattles that a snake has does not equate to its age.

"It equates to how many times they have shed," he said. "They gain a rattle every time they shed."

But an older snake will also have a wider, larger rattle, upon which new rattles can be placed.

Prairie rattlesnakes can grow to a length of 50 inches, but are typically somewhere between 2 and 3 feet long. Massasauga are smaller, and darker, growing to 1 to 2 feet long.

While rattlesnakes are venomous, the incidence of bites isn't that great.

Taggart said he's aware of about three people who have been bitten by massasauga and perhaps one by a prairie rattlesnake.

The massasauga has a higher bite rate than others, perhaps because of its smaller size, which means smaller and quieter rattles.

"They're pretty irascible," Taggart said of the temperment of both species of snakes. "They will try to escape, but they're quick to abandon that as well. They are quick to coil and rattle."

Because of that, and the danger of a bite, they are the most frequently killed snake.

Taggart isn't fond of needless killing of snakes.

"If they are around your house, I wouldn't begrudge anyone doing away with it," he said.

Except for the frail or very young, there's little danger of dying from a rattlesnake bite.

"They're not very high on the potency list," Taggart said.

That doesn't mean anyone should risk getting bitten.

"I always say you may wish you were dead," he said. "Because the pain will be intense."