Rattlesnakes won't always give a warning before they strike, so it pays to be extra vigilant when you're outdoors. Jeffry Scott

The "buzzworms" are back - and the biting has begun.

Rattlesnakes, sometimes called buzzworms because of their buzz-like rattle, are coming out of hibernation this month - providing a reptilian spectacle, but also posing a threat.

At least one person in the Tucson area already had suffered a nonfatal rattlesnake bite as of last week, says Mark Murphy of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center.

He says more than 200 people are bitten by rattlers in Arizona during a typical year.

Presumably, you don't want to be one of them.

Today, we offer a quick-look guide to rattlesnake behavior - with tips on avoiding a bite and what to do if you get one.

Our sources include Murphy; Randy Babb, a biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department; and Renée Lizotte, a keeper at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

On StarNet: Search our online database of Southern Arizona wildlife at go.azstarnet.com/critters

Rattlesnake basics

• Southern Arizona is home to 11 species of rattlesnakes - or 18 if you count subspecies.

• Rattlers typically hibernate from November to March, although it's possible to encounter one in the desert on a warm day at any time of the year.

• Being cold-blooded critters, they come out of their dens in a sort of mass "wake-up" when the weather warms up. "They'll sometimes travel many miles to their summering grounds," Babb says.

• Peak daytime activity is in the spring and in September and October. Snakes are often out at night during the hot summer season.

A bit about bites

• Most bites in Southern Arizona are delivered by Western diamondback rattlesnakes - large, dangerous snakes that can pack a high dose of venom.

• Don't count on that rattle for a warning. "The rattle and striking aren't necessarily connected," says Lizotte. "They might not rattle at all and simply strike, or they might rattle for a long time and not strike."

• While 200 or more people get bitten by rattlers most years in Arizona, only a small percentage of victims die as a result of the bites. In one recent 10-year period, Babb says, poison centers reported 1,912 bites resulting in only four fatalities.

• One reason for the high survival rate is that about 10 percent of rattlesnake strikes are "dry bites" - delivering no venom. Another factor is that quick treatment with antivenin can prevent life-threatening damage.

Safety strategies

• Don't mess with rattlesnakes. Don't try to pick them up, poke them with sticks or play with them - none of that. "If you see a snake," Murphy advises, "go the other direction."

• Watch where you walk, reach and sit. "Stay on the trail if you're out for a hike," says Lizotte. "If you get into tall brush, it's very difficult to tell if there's a snake down there. And always watch where you put your hands and feet. Don't sit on something unless you've checked it first."

• Here's what to do if you don't notice a snake until you're within striking range: "Striking range is about one-half to two-thirds of the body length of the snake," Lizotte says.

"If you think you're within striking range, the best thing is to stay still and let the snake move away from you. If you absolutely have to move, you want to move slowly away from it. Avoid sudden movements because sudden movements might elicit a strike."

Survive a snakebite

• Get to a health-care facility as quickly and safely as possible. "Most bites require antivenin," Murphy says. "The problems to be treated are tissue damage and bleeding disorders."

• Don't apply ice, use a tourniquet or make incisions around the bite. "Those things can do more harm than good," Murphy says. "A tourniquet can actually make it worse. A snakebite causes a lot of swelling, and if you have a tight, constricted band, it can cut off the circulation."

• Don't increase your risk by trying to kill or capture the snake. "It's a myth that you need to know the type of rattlesnake and bring it to the emergency room," Babb says. "All rattlesnake bites are treated with the same antivenin."

Snakebite information

Call 1-800-222-1222 anytime for information on snakebites. The line is operated by the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy.

Snake removal

Some Tucson-area fire departments will remove rattlers from a house or yard.

• Capt. Trish Tracy of the Tucson Fire Department says the department will respond to 911 calls about snakes posing a danger in houses or confined areas of a yard. "But if it's in an open yard and not trapped in your house, call a snake-removal service," Tracy says.

• The Rural/Metro Fire Department will remove rattlesnakes at no charge to subscribers. Call 297-3600.

• In outlying areas, call your local fire department for information.

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at 573-4192 or dkreutz@azstarnet.com