A few months back, in a pond by the rutted dirt road leading to Crane Mountain, several painted turtles sat sunning themselves on a log. I pointed them out to my animal-loving son, but was surprised to hear one of my hiking buddies pipe up instead.
“Ooh! I love turtles!” she exclaimed, and this was notable because she is more typically the sort of person who broadcasts her complaints than her delights.
But then, seeing turtles is always a treat, and after our hike we stopped again on the road, to watch them drop off the log and swim around, their pointy noses poking up through the water.
This time of year I see a lot of turtles, mostly as roadkill — a crushed snapping turtle on the side of Blue Barns Road, a big box turtle up on 9N. June is egg-laying time for a lot of turtles, and that also means it’s road-crossing time. And many of them don’t make it.
Some turtles hang out near roads because they like the look and feel of the shoulders. They like sand or gravel — it’s easy to dig through — to lay their eggs. But roads are dangerous, and turtles are slow.
We’ve helped lots of turtles cross the road in early summer, lifting smaller ones and carrying them to the other side. It’s easy to move box turtles, because they’ll close themselves into their shells when you grab them. Painted turtles tend to lay eggs close to the water they live in, so they’re less likely to be crossing roads.
You have to be really careful if you try to move snapping turtles — those big, muscular turtles whose shells are too small for them to pull back into — because they are feisty and can bite really hard. Their mouths are like beaks, and they can twist their long necks far around, which means they can and will bite someone trying to pick them up by their midsection.
Most people advise giving a snapping turtle wide berth, but there have been times when we thought that leaving one alone was leaving it to certain death, so we’ve tried to get it off the road.
A friend once used a shovel and a wheelbarrow to move a snapping turtle off the busy road in front of his shop. My husband’s technique, gleaned from growing up in Florida, is to put a broom handle or shovel handle in front of the turtle, who will grab it with its powerful jaws and hang on tight. That way it can be carried across the road, and with its mouth already engaged, it can’t bite its bearer.
Some advise approaching a snapper from behind, pushing down its back and picking it up by its tail. I would be scared to do it that way. Besides, holding a turtle by its tail can hurt it, and if it starts twisting around and looking like it will bite, you’ll get scared and drop it, and that could really hurt it. I’d try approaching it from behind with a broom, and herding it off the road. Keep a good length of broom between you and the turtle.
(We’ve also used the broom-herding technique on chickens, geese and turkeys. In fact, a broom is one of the handiest farm and wildlife tools we have. When the kids were really little and afraid of roosters, they never went into the henhouse without a broom.)
Perhaps the safest way to help a turtle across the road is just to stand guard, keeping an eye out for traffic and alerting drivers to the slow-moving reptiles. Then hope they pay attention, slow down and swerve carefully around your charge. Because one of my husband’s most heartbreaking turtle experiences came a few years ago in front of our house, when he signalled to a driver to slow down, pointed to a huge snapping turtle, and then saw the driver grin, aim for the turtle, crush it and drive off.
“That turtle was probably older than he was,” my husband said of the driver. “And probably a lot smarter too.”
Snappers generally stay in or near water — they like small ponds and shallow lakes because they like hanging out in mud — but the females leave to lay eggs, often walking half a mile or more. When she finds the right place, she’ll dig a hole with her back feet, lay around 30 eggs, kick dirt over the hole and then head back to her watering hole.
That’s pretty much the way it is with turtles. When the babies hatch out, they’re on their own. One of my neighbors accidentally uncovered a clutch of 11 turtle eggs a couple of weeks ago, no mom in sight. He covered them back up, marking the spot, so he and his kids can watch for them to hatch.
Turtle eggs laid now will hatch out around September, depending on the weather. If a turtle lays eggs late in the summer, they’ll overwinter and hatch in the spring. And then the little turtles try to get to the water before they get eaten by skunks, foxes, raccoons, owls or herons.
I think that’s why turtles lay so many eggs — I said 30, but they can lay 15 to 100 — because so many get picked off before they get a chance to start growing. They get eaten as eggs, they get eaten as hatchlings, they get eaten as youngsters — even by their own kind. Then they have to fight human problems: cars, lawn mowers, a propensity to drain the swampy lands turtles prefer.
If they make it, snapping turtles can live a long time, up to 100 years. Painted turtles can live up to 40 years, although with predators — including snapping turtles — it’s not easy for them to live that long. Box turtles also can live 40 or 50 years, some much longer.
And all turtles keep on growing as they age, so the bigger the turtle is, the older it is.
Turtles are ancient creatures, left over from the age of dinosaurs. It’s nice to see them still around, connecting us to the ancient days of our planet, and reminding us of our need to preserve this Earth for their descendants in the far-off future.
Sunning themselves on logs in quiet ponds, they also remind us to take in and enjoy the world around us, right now.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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