Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Month of the Turtle — Use good judgment when helping turtles

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June is unofficially the Month of the Turtle, with more adult pond turtles seen here in the Northeast than at any other month of the year.

We see them basking on logs, rocks and shoreline. We see them crossing highways, rural roads, city and in town streets, driveways, yards and fields. And for precious few, we see them digging in sunny vegetable and flower gardens, along driveways, sandy shores and even bicycle trails. This is the time more turtles are seen in unexpected places as females leave the comfort and safety of their watery habitats to return to, or search out new, places to nest. Unless females are first-time nesters, they will often as not, return to a previous nesting location to lay their eggs, and continue year after year.

Often, especially in the case of snapping turtles, yards are appealing and females will return if undisturbed year after year. They exhibit "nest-site fidelity," returning to the same location to lay their eggs and then lumber off to whence they came. We should not think we know best and relocate one or dissuade one from its egg-laying duty, unless it is in an outrageously dangerous location, as along a busy highway or in its center strip, where it is best to let fate have its way.

For a variety of reasons, snapping turtles often lay their eggs in neighborhoods. In past years, when eggs were laid in a notoriously busy yard with children and family pets during the day and egg-robbing skunks and raccoons after dark, I have suggested placing a chicken wire or hardware cloth cage over the nest after the female leaves. Stake it securely to prevent easy removal.

Snapping turtles lay 20 to 30, or more, eggs about one-inch diameter that resemble a small ping-pong ball. Eggs laid in June will usually hatch in September or early October (three to four months after laying). The young hatchling's shell will be about an inch, and it is important to release at once, if caged. If you are sure of the mother turtle's home pond, you can release the hatchlings there, especially if there are busy roads to cross.

Another thought on "helping" turtles: If a turtle is seen crossing a road, do not risk getting hurt or causing harm to others by unsafely stopping or pulling off the road or trying to dodge traffic. However, if the opportunity to safely move a turtle occurs, move it in the direction it was heading and place it off the road.

Getting a head start

The red-bellied cooter, a turtle found (only) in Plymouth County, Mass., was nearly extirpated (wiped out) and, in 1980, was officially declared federally endangered. Their population at the time was less than 300 individuals.

I learned about caging nests (mentioned above) in the early days of protecting this endangered turtle, in which The Berkshire Museum Aquarium was involved. One of the reasons the species made both the federal and state endangered lists is that nests were destroyed in large numbers by marauding skunks and raccoons, and the few young that did hatch were eaten by other predator.

Since 1985, when a head-start program in which newly hatched red-bellied cooters are taken from caged nests to winter over safely at zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and even a few high school biology classrooms, just over 4,000 red-bellieds have been released. These head-started turtles are far more able to survive, being too large for bullfrogs, herons and larger fish to prey upon them, after spending a winter gorging on romaine lettuce and other fresh greens.

The Berkshire Museum Aquarium joined the program in 1986 and continues to this day to care for about a dozen hatchlings every year fall through spring, and sometimes another clutch through the summer. And one of our local head-start turtles was later found laying eggs herself, which hatched and we head-started!

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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