by Whit Gibbons

June 20, 2010

Q: A big turtle crawled into our backyard in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and proceeded to dig in the mud with her hind feet. I think it was a pond slider. She laid eggs and then covered them up. When she was done, she did not even turn around to look at the nest. She just quickly walked back down the hill, headed in the direction of the lake, which is more than a hundred yards away. It was rather a sight to see. From what I read, I need to build a protective cage because raccoons and other predators can smell the eggs. If I can protect them and notice when they hatch, I'll be able to put them in a box and move them down closer to the lake. I was surprised she would make a nest way up here in our yard on the hill, so far from the lake. Three hundred feet seems like too far for a baby turtle to travel. Do you have any tips on caring for a turtle nest and the babies?

A: Turtles, including common pond sliders, snappers and painted turtles, the most common species in lakes of the eastern United States, often nest hundreds of feet from water--the babies will make it back to the water on their own. How they know the way to the water is still a key research question that turtle biologists are studying but have not fully resolved. The best protection for a nest is to cover it with hardware cloth or chicken wire so that it can get rain and sun but raccoons cannot dig it up. If it was a slider, she may have laid a dozen or so eggs. A painted turtle would lay half as many. Snappers may lay more than 50 eggs. Most freshwater species have eggs that will hatch in a couple of months, depending upon summer temperatures. But after hatching, baby sliders and painted turtles usually stay in the nest until spring. Snappers often emerge in the fall.

If you want to know when they emerge from the nest, encircle the nest area with a hardware cloth fence (about six inches high) and check it daily if possible. Remember to remove the wire covering that was placed to protect the nest. A warm day after a rain in the fall or early spring is the most common time for emergence. Seeing the hatchlings will require that you check each day that seems like a good one for them to have come out, but the experience of finding baby turtles makes it all worthwhile. You can take them to the water yourself or let them find it on their own.

Q: We just captured an alligator snapping turtle in our neighborhood in Athens, Ga., and it is very aggressive. I am reluctant to release it on our farm because it might attack some of our chickens. I would appreciate your suggestion as to what to do with it.

A: The turtle is probably a common snapping turtle rather than an alligator snapper, which in Georgia is found primarily in the southeastern part of the state. Many people confuse the two. Common snappers can sometimes weigh 50 pounds and look enormous. On land they appear aggressive when someone approaches them, but they are simply defending themselves, the way many animals do. Once in the water, they will immediately swim away.

Most of them on land at this time of year are females laying eggs, although even males will take occasional treks from one body of water to another. They will eat small ducks that are in the water, but I have never heard of one eating live chickens, although they will certainly eat a dead one that is in the water. My suggestion is that you release it in a lake or river, and you will probably never see it again. Nudge it into an empty garbage can to carry it so you don't get bitten or scratched.

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