Story and photos by Tom Hodgson
Memorial Day Weekend usually marks the beginning of turtle egg-laying season.
For the next month, there will be a parade of turtles crossing area roads on their way to favorite nesting sites. There will always be thoughtless individuals who will go out of their way to run them over, but most responsible drivers will do their best to avoid them.
The busiest turtle crossing days will be when weather fronts are on the move and rain is most likely.
Turtles can sense a falling barometer. Millions of years of evolution have programmed them to lay their eggs before a rain, so that the scent of their digging is washed away.
This affords some protection from hungry raccoons, skunks, weasels and foxes who consider scrambled turtle eggs a delicacy worth digging for.
In spite of this protective mechanism, more than 90 percent of turtle nests are destroyed by these predators before a single egg can hatch.
If it were not for the fact that adult turtles are long lived and lay many eggs over the years, they would have become extinct long ago. That’s why it is so important to give them safe passage as they set out on this important mission.
Turtle egg-laying is a fascinating process and is entirely instinctive. Each female turtle digs a flask-shaped hole with her hind feet without being able to see what she is doing. She places her clutch of eggs into the hole one at a time, adjusting each one with her hind feet so they fit perfectly.
When the clutch is complete, once again she uses her hind feet to cover the opening with dirt. Then without so much as a backward glance, she marches off to return to the pond or lake from which she came. Those eggs that escape predation will hatch in 12 to 15 weeks, depending on the warmth of the summer.
The hatchlings of some species will remain underground until the following spring. That is why we often see baby turtles scampering toward the water in April and May.
Turtle eggs vary by species. Blandings, painted, map, musk and spotted turtles lay oval eggs. Snapping and soft-shell turtles lay round eggs. Musk and soft-shell turtle eggs have hard shells.
Snapping turtle eggshells start out hard, but soften with age. The remainder lay eggs with flexible shells. The sex of most local turtles depends on the incubation temperature of the eggs.
Those incubated below a certain temperature become one sex and those above that temperature become the other. The soft-shell turtle eggs are one exception.
Those who live on area lakes have probably seen many turtles laying eggs in their yards. They have also witnessed the carnage that results when these nests are ravaged by predators. This can be avoided fairly easily, however.
After a turtle has completed the nesting process, a 2-foot by 2-foot piece of hardware cloth can be placed over the nest and secured at the corners with small tent stakes. After a couple of weeks, when the scent of the nest has dissipated, the hardware cloth can be removed.