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Taking it slow with turtles

Large turtles, like Snapping Turtles, are best left alone as they try to cross the road.

It is the time of year when babies abound. Birds are building nests, incubating their eggs, and feeding their young. Fawns are found curled up on the ground waiting for their mothers to return. Tadpoles are hatching from eggs and baby bunnies are hopping around yards.

It is also the time when turtles emerge from their ponds to find suitable places to lay their eggs, and turtle-human interactions skyrocket. Around Audubon, we have found quite a few Snapping Turtles wandering the property searching for the perfect spot, or digging in mulch and gravel piles, to lay their eggs. On a recent trip across the state to Albany and back, I passed many turtles sitting on the edge of the highway, about to attempt a dangerous crossing.

Now is the perfect time to brush up on an important subject: turtle etiquette. It’s important not only to know when a turtle needs help and how to help it, but also when a turtle is perfectly content and needs to be left alone.

Let’s start with the most likely scenario for turtle encounters this time of year: road crossings. When a turtle is crossing a road, it is often either looking for a spot to lay its eggs, or making their way back to a body of water after the eggs have been laid. If you see a turtle that looks like it is about to cross the road, first ask yourself if it would be safe for you to stop and help the turtle. On my Albany trip, I did not stop to help the turtles as I didn’t want to put myself in any danger on the highway. On a quiet road or a road with slow moving traffic, I would have stopped to help.

If you decide to help the turtle, the next thing you should see is if it would be safe to handle the turtle. Snapping Turtles and Spiny Softshell turtles are the ones you need to be wary of. Their powerful bites are well known, but what is not well known is the length of their necks. Often you see these turtles with their heads tucked right up next to their shells. When provoked, they can extend their necks out the length of their body and reach around to their sides. This, combined with their large size and weight, often makes it difficult to safely help these critters. These turtles are best left alone.

Smaller turtles, such as Painted Turtles, are a different story. Let’s say you are on a quiet road and see a Painted Turtle attempting to cross. You stop to help. The first thing to note is the direction the turtle is traveling. If you want to help the turtle cross the road, always move it in the direction it is trying to go, even if this is away from a pond or other body of water. It is likely the turtle is intentionally trying to get further onto dry land to dig a hole to lay its eggs. If you put the turtle back in the water, it will just climb out and try to cross the road again.

When it comes time to move the turtle gently lift it up from the sides, holding it between its legs on both sides firmly, almost as if you are lifting a hamburger. The turtle will likely struggle, waving its legs back and forth. It may scratch your hands with surprisingly sharp claws, but can’t do much damage to you beyond that. Quickly move the turtle to the other side of the road, and let it go on its way. Once the turtle is safely on its way, make sure to wash and sanitize your hands. Turtles can carry salmonella and other diseases.

It is also important to know when a turtle does not need help. As mentioned before, this time of year we have seen turtles at Audubon in areas they are not usually seen: on trails, in dirt piles, and away from water. This does not mean the turtle is lost or disoriented. This is perfectly normal behavior for turtles this time of year as they look for the best egg laying locations. If the turtle is not in danger of being hit by a car or another immediate threat, let the turtle be and enjoy watching it in its natural habitat.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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