Naturewatch: It's best not to interfere with wild turtles


Q: I spend a lot of time on sections of the bike path, but mostly in Adams and Cheshire. The past days I have seen three turtles also using the path. One was a painter, I think, and the other two were snappers. Are they migrating or off to lay eggs? I have seen a snapper, good-size one, laying eggs beside my driveway and wonder how long before the hatch. I left her alone, guessing she knew how to get back to where she came from.

A: The turtles could be migrating, perhaps to another pond, but more likely at this season, looking for a suitable place to lay their eggs, hence should not be disturbed, but allowed to go their way.

You are also most likely correct in your identification. The painted and snapping turtles are the most common of the six species of turtles found in Berkshire County. Statewide, excluding five sea turtles, we have a total of the 10 species ranging from the smallest and rarest, the 3- to 4-inch bog turtle to what is the largest and perhaps the commonest, the snapping turtle, reaching 18 inches.

It is interesting that we rarely see the snapping turtle except at this time of the year, when females leave the safety of their watery home, whether it be a pond, lake, or even river, to look for an ideal place to lay her eggs. Somehow, they are attracted to disturbed soil, hence we often find them nesting in gardens. They disserve the name snapping turtle on land when they are "formidable biters." In water, they are usually docile and typically ignore swimmers. Incidentally, the present world record for a wild snapping turtle of 76.5 pounds was caught in Massachusetts!

A female snapping turtle can lay up to 40 or more eggs in a clutch and it takes close to 90 days to hatch. The exact time varies within a few days. Painted turtle clutches are much smaller, averaging up to eight eggs that take about 80 days to hatch. You were wise to leave the female alone to do her duty and return to water on her own. This is the best course of action, unless a female is found in a heavily populated area with children, heavy traffic and pets in abundance. In some instances, a female may have begun nesting in a neighborhood, that when she began 30 years earlier, was open farmland. In the event a snapping turtle must be relocated, use a broom to "sweep" it into a pail for transport. This is far safer that attempting to pick it up.

Predators are just too good at discovering turtle eggs, and for that reason, along with loss of suitable habitat, local turtles are on the decline. Add to that highway deaths that primarily occur in often gravid females, it is no wonder all but three of the turtle species in Massachusetts, painted, snapping and stinkpot or musk, are protected. For these reasons, it is unwise to catch young (or more importantly, adult) turtles for a "pet." Proper, long-term care is difficult, and if a pet turtle is wanted, look for one in a pet shop, not in the wild.

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