Turtle crossings sometimes need a little help

Date Published: 
June 27, 2014

I moved to the shore area in 1986. I remember driving up and down Route 1 and seeing the “Turtle Crossing” signs. But over the years I have never been fortunate enough to see any turtles crossing Route 1.

I do, however, occasionally come across eastern box turtles, sliders and some snappers crossing many of the back roads all over the shore areas. The most popular times are after a spring or summer storm. When I do see them, I always stop and “help them cross the roads.”

You should never remove the turtles from the area they live in. Move them across the road or turn them around the other way, but do not pick them up and take them home, or “relocate” them to another area.

Most of these turtles are born, grow up and live out their lives in the same general area. They know where things are, like food and water sources. They know where to go to hibernate every year. Eastern box turtles generally live in an area of about 200 meters.

If you want a “pet” turtle, first, think twice because they are not an easy pet. They require very specific care and living conditions, which are difficult and expensive to provide. But if, after you do a ton of research, you do decide you want a pet turtle, go buy a captive-bred one. Do not remove them from nature. (If you do decide you want a pet turtle and would like some help with the research, email me.)

If you do see a turtle crossing the road, do stop and try to get it out of the roadway. Do be advised that turtles — wild turtles especially — often carry many diseases, such as salmonella. So if you pick up a turtle to move it across the road, make sure you thoroughly sanitize your hands.

I usually carry hand sanitizer and bleach type wipes in my car just for these situations. I also recommend that, even though you have sanitized your hands, you still thoroughly wash them with a good soap the first chance you get and definitely before eating anything.

Be careful to determine what kind of turtle it is before you decide to pick it up to move it. Some snapping turtles can reach their heads all the way around to their tails, and they don’t just snap — they bite.

Most box turtles will pull into their shells as you approach, as will some sliders. Some sliders will actually “run” — as much as a turtle can — away from you, and that’s OK, because it gets them out of the road.

Eastern box turtles mostly live in moist forested areas that have lots of underbrush. Turtles are omnivorous, which means they eat both plants and animals. Juveniles mostly eat meat, with adults eating a diet heavier in plant matter.

Earth worms and slugs are generally favorites, but turtles will eat almost any insect and even carrion. Turtles eat all types of plant matter, including leaves, berries, clover, wild mushrooms, dandelions — and your garden, if they can. I once had a captive-bred pet turtle whose favorites were tomatoes, watermelon, dandelion greens, small fish and worms.

Box turtles reach sexual maturity at seven to 10 years old. Their bodies are about 5 to 6 inches in length. Females will generally then start laying three to six eggs each year. However, of the hundreds of eggs a female will lay over her lifetime, only two or three will likely make it to adulthood. Those that do survive may live to 25 or 30 years old. There are many documented cases of turtles living to 40 to 50 years old.

The slow growth rate and the declining habitat area are some of the reasons for the decline in the wild turtle population. Also, when people remove a turtle from its home, take it home to become a pet, then later decide to let it go, the turtle’s natural instinct is to try to get back to where it was born, thus exposing it to many additional dangers, such as predators, more humans and cars.

I remember when I first started driving back in the mid-1970s. Even though it was the Maryland suburbs of D.C., I was always seeing turtles crossing the roads. Nowadays, you have to get lucky to see turtles crossing the road, but if you do — please, stop and help them across, but do not take them home. You can even take a “selfie” of you and the turtle you saved. Just please don’t take the turtle.