The Wild Side: Helping turtles hatch
I have only driven in the ditch once in an attempt to avoid hitting an animal. Not a deer, grouse or turkey…I have hit all those. I was driving in Kansas City, and I was trying to save a turtle. The turtle and truck were both OK, though.
I have seen a good number of painted turtles, snapping turtles and even a couple of wood turtles along the roadsides in my recent travels. These turtles are in the process of moving to a nesting site. I have had a couple people ask: If you see a turtle crossing the road, should you help it across, or not? I went to an expert, retired DNR herpetologist Bob Hay, who literally wrote the book on Wisconsin’s frogs, turtles, snakes and lizards. He said the answer is yes. It is best to help it to the side of the road to which it is heading (since that is where it is going), but only stop to help the turtle if it is safe for you and other motorists.
For a snapper, it is safest to use a stick to get the turtle to bite on so you can then grab the tail and lift the back of the shell off the ground. Then drag the turtle to the side of the road where it is headed. Lifting the back end a little helps reduce friction on the feet and the bottom of the shell. Do not lift the turtle off the ground by the tail, as it can cause spinal injuries, especially for females that are carrying a load of eggs at this time of year.
Unfortunately, even under ideal circumstances, turtle nests don’t do very well. Only 5 percent of eggs laid survive to hatch and of those only 1 percent may survive to reproductive age. So, take the snapping turtle for example. An average clutch size might be 30 eggs. So, out of three snapping turtle nests, maybe five eggs will hatch out baby snappers. Of those, maybe 1 or 2 will live to the age of 7 or 8 years, which is likely the minimum age for a female snapper to lay eggs. Those aren’t very good odds. Now perhaps you see some of why five of Wisconsin’s 11 turtle species are experiencing significant population declines. Nests laid in road shoulders are subject to more disturbance and predation, further worsening the odds.
Every year I get requests for information on how folks can help improve the odds of nesting success. If a nest was laid on your property, on a sandy/gravelly spot that you can take out of use, you can try a predator guard. Cut a large square of 1/4-inch hardware mesh and place it over the disturbed soil. Use smooth metal wire stakes (like the ones that come with tents) to hold the mesh down fairly tight to the ground. Grass can grow through the mesh, but animals cannot dig in from above. Most turtles incubate somewhere around 60 days, so after about six weeks, you can lift up one or two stakes an inch or so; loosen the mesh just a bit from any vegetation that grew. This lets the little turtles push up the soil and crawl out underneath the mesh. If you lift it up too high, though, snakes and other predators can get in under it.
Now, here is the bad news. We live pretty far north. If the nest is laid late enough in the summer, or if the summer has too many cool days, the hatchling turtles will hang out in the nest all winter and emerge the following spring. What is too late and what is too cool? There are no absolutes, it varies by soil type, turtle subspecies and latitude. The point is, you are welcome to try this exclosure, but you may have guests living below your lawn until your grass begins to green up next spring.