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Otto: Turtle season is upon us once again

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(Photo provided)
Box turtles occasionally are found roaming around Kane County but should not be considered native. Their domed shells and nonwebbed feet distinguish them from local commoners like snapping turtles, painted turtles and red-eared sliders.

Over the past three or four weeks, we’ve gotten several calls about turtles. Turtles wandering through back yards. Turtles wandering through front yards. A turtle that, at first glance, appeared to have wandered successfully across the entrance road at the North Aurora Outlet Mall.

It turned out, though, that this mall turtle had been struck by misfortune. A vehicular misfortune, to be exact. And that’s when I knew it was time to let folks know that turtle season is upon us once again.

In our region, late April, May and early June constitute turtle mating and egg-laying season. Snappers, spiny softshells, red-eared sliders and painted turtles, to name a few, are on the move. Some will be males in search of females or a new territory with less male competition. Many more will be females looking for suitable sites to dig nests and deposit the eggs that will become, in 75 to 90 days depending on species and prevailing temperatures, the next generation.

Some turtles, like the spiny softshell, travel only a short distance from their home waterways; others, most notably the snapper, may hike a mile or more before settling in. And that’s when trouble can set in.

Aside from the dangers inherent in leaving their home habitats, turtles in our area also face a number of manmade hazards, including people. I’ve seen turtles bumped up against curbs, flattened against pavement and hopelessly entangled in debris. I’ve seen turtles digging nests in landscaping mulch, and in the gravel of highway shoulders (locations, that, were it not for the traffic whizzing by only inches away, actually would be ideal nest sites, well-drained and warm as they are).

I’ve also seen and heard about many turtles who had quite successfully journeyed far from home, only to be hauled off to the nearest river/creek/pond by a well-intentioned human. I recall biking on the Fox River Trail East a few springs ago, heading north on the stretch by the Geneva water treatment plant. A crowd had gathered, and a man was hauling himself up the rather steep bank near the bike bridge. He triumphantly announced that he had just “put that snapper back where he belongs!” Sadly, that the turtle itself probably knew best where it belonged had never even registered with the kind man.

So what should you do if you find a turtle on a trek? Ideally, nothing. The turtle, guided by its reptilian instincts, will figure out where it needs to go.

But here in the midst of suburbia, conditions usually are not ideal. Frequently, turtles end up on roadways. Then what?

If you’re inclined to help, you’ll first need to make sure you can do so without endangering yourself or others. Next, move the turtle to the roadside, in the direction it is traveling. If the turtle has just started its crossing, and you move it back, he or she will just crawl out on the pavement again.

What if the turtle is a large snapper? Again, make sure you can help without getting hurt. Large snapping turtles can tip the scales at 35 pounds or more and, as the name implies … they snap. At times quite vigorously. If you’re brave, you can try picking the turtle up by its tail, making sure to give that long neck and gaping maw a wide berth. Or, you could also try using a shovel or other such long-handled implement to hurry the beast along, again following the turtle’s original direction of travel.

The one exception to these rules would be if you were to come across a box turtle. With their high-domed upper shells (carapaces), hinged lower shells (plastrons) and webless feet, these land-dwelling creatures look quite different from their aquatic cousins. Another important difference: They don’t normally live here.

Indeed, any box turtle you find in our area likely is an escaped pet or, worse, a pet someone has decided they no longer want. Should you find one of these wandering waifs, give me a call. We don’t run a turtle adoption service at the park district, but we can put you in touch with organizations that do.

If you’re lucky enough to have a yard – front or back – that a female turtle has deemed worthy enough for a nest – congratulations! Hatchling turtles will emerge, on their own, after the requisite amount of time has passed. Snapping turtles typically leave their home nest in late summer/early fall, and proceed to a pond for hibernation; painted turtles, however, tend to stay below ground until the arrival of spring. And then Turtle Season will begin again.

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at potto@stcparks.org or 630-513-4346.

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