What to do with jaywalking turtles?

May 19, 2014

To the editor:

As you drive around Rochester, you’ve probably noticed turtle crossing signs. But this time of year many drivers are encountering turtles crossing the road in unmarked places! Obviously, like many residents of Massachusetts, Rochester turtles flaunt the law and just jaywalk at will. What is a driver (or walker or biker) to do with these flagrant lawbreakers?

First, it might be best to identify the culprits. There are basically three members of the ancient (220 million years of history) order of Testudines, turtles, one might encounter in Rochester. Snapping turtles can be found near any wetland. They look menacing with a dark carapace (shell) often draped with algae, long nails, hooked beak and thick tail as long as its shell, not to mention its reputation of snapping and holding on. The carapace can measure up to 18 inches and the largest ever caught in Massachusetts weighed 76.5 pounds. Painted turtles are seen basking in rows on logs and rocks in any wetland in the spring. It is probably our most abundant turtle. Its dark olive to black carapace is bordered top and bottom with red and black designs. Its bottom shell (plastron) is usually yellow but may have markings on it. The legs and tail are usually red and black and the head is yellow and black. Finally, there are Eastern Box turtles, which are more tortoise like, although they also use wetlands. They have a high domed carapace with a brown to black background and yellow to orange marking in varying patterns. Its plastron is yellow to olive with varying black blotches or lines. It is also hinged so that the turtle may completely close itself up if it senses danger. There are some other kinds of turtles that may be found in Rochester, they but are extremely rare.

So why do these turtles cross the road? Well, like the chicken, to get to the other side. In the spring, the females are searching for somewhere to lay their eggs. One theory is that they can smell disturbed earth, especially sandy or gravel banks. Another theory is that they are returning to where they hatched. Whatever the reason, the proper etiquette if one sees a turtle in the road is to first do nothing to endanger your safety. If it is a snapper, you can just watch and wave off traffic or, if brave, grab a stout stick, let it snap on and drag it by the mouth to the other side where you can leave stick and turtle to sort it out. But if it’s a box turtle or painted turtle and traffic is light and you have the time, watch it. If you are in a hurry and think it might be hit by another car, pick up the turtle and carry it in the direction it was heading to the other side of the road. You might think it might be better to put it back in the wetland it came from or to bring it home to a safe place. Don’t do it. It is on a mission!

The bottom line is if you can do this small act of kindness to help a fellow creature without endangering yourself, please do. Remember Karma is always watching. And if you get to see where she digs and lays her eggs, you might want to cover the area with chicken wire to prevent predation of the eggs. But more than that, any encounter with a wild creature is a special occasion. The chance to observe and interact with a bit of our wild world is a wonderful thing. Embrace it. We are lucky to live in a town where this is possible to see and appreciate so much wildlife.

This tongue in cheek bit of education was brought to you by the letter T and the Rochester Open Space Committee, who thought you might like to know! If you have turtle or other nature related questions, you can call the Conservation Commission at Town Hall Annex.

 

Rochester Open Space Committee

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