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What do rattlesnakes eat? (Complete Diet)

what do rattlesnakes eat
What do rattlesnakes eat?

Rattlesnakes are fascinating venomous snakes found throughout North, Central and South America. But what do rattlesnakes eat to survive in the wild?

In this article, we will explore the diet of rattlesnakes and the hunting techniques they use to capture their prey. From small mammals to birds and reptiles, we will delve into the world of rattlesnakes and their feeding habits.

What do rattlesnakes eat?

rattlesnake eating rodent
Kristen Lalumiere; Joshua Tree National Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rattlesnakes live in various habitats, from deserts, forests, grasslands, scrub brush and swamps. So they have a broad, varied diet but primarily eat rodents. Listed below is a complete list of their diet.


As rattlesnakes inhabit swamps and nearby water systems, they can prey on amphibians like frogs, toads and newts.


Small rattlesnakes will mainly consume insects like grasshoppers and crickets as this is the largest prey that they can swallow at first.


Young rattlesnakes will only feed on small lizards, while adults have been known to feed on larger prey like spiny lizards.


A rattlesnake’s most common prey are mammals like rabbits, mice, rats,
kangaroo rats, pack rats and squirrels.


Birds are the least favourite of rattlesnake’s diet to catch, but they have been seen eating doves, quail, pigeons and even roadrunners.

How do rattlesnakes hunt?

Rattlesnake pit organ between the eye and the nose.
Rattlesnake pit organ between the eye and the nose.

Rattlesnakes are members of the pit viper family Crotalinae which all have pit organs located between their eyes and nostrils. These organs allow the snake to detect infrared radiation, the heat emitted by warm-blooded prey or other warm objects.

They can see this radiated heat at wavelengths between 5 – 30 micrometres. The pit organs are so advanced in rattlesnakes that they can strike at their prey in complete darkness and detect warm objects from 12 m (40 ft) away.

Rattlesnakes are ambush predators that wait for suitable prey to come to them before striking with their powerful fangs and injecting their venom. Their venom is hemotoxic and attacks the prey’s red blood cells, stopping the animal’s blood from clotting.

How does a rattlesnake eat its prey?

rattlesnake eating Steller's jay
Rattlesnake eating Steller’s Jay head first.

Once the rattlesnake’s venom has completely immobilised its prey, the snake uses its flexible jaw to swallow the prey whole, starting with the animal’s head. The snake’s jaw is connected to its skull by a series of flexible ligaments and muscles that allow it to open wide enough to swallow prey significantly bigger than its head. This is made possible by the snake’s highly flexible spine and ribs, which can bend and stretch to accommodate the prey as it is swallowed.

How often does a rattlesnake eat?

Rattlesnakes don’t like to overindulge in their food only, with adults only needing to feed once every two weeks. Smaller rattlesnakes may eat more frequently as they have more growing to do. Rattlesnakes can go this long without food as they use little energy, as they don’t actively hunt for their prey and rely on ambushing an unsuspecting animal.

Their environment can also play a role in their meal frequency. In areas with abundant food sources, rattlesnakes may eat more frequently, while in areas with scarce prey, they may go longer without eating.

What do baby rattlesnakes eat?

As baby rattlesnakes are small, they can only swallow small prey initially, so they will primarily eat small mammals, such as mice, small reptiles and insects. As they grow and mature, they can consume larger prey. The venom they produce is just as potent as that of an adult rattlesnake and helps them immobilise their prey.