What the Turtles Taught Me

During my first month working in Oakland Township Parks, I was rewarded by the sighting of three Blanding’s turtles! These creatures seemed assured in my presence; their heads stuck out of their shell gallantly with a smile. I inched closer to get a better look. 

Two of the Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) I saw during my first month at the parks. The left turtle was at Bear Creek Nature Park and the right at Watershed Ridge Park.

To my astonishment, they didn’t startle as I moved toward them. It was like their mind was elsewhere, and I left with envy at their mellow state. I admit I rarely experience a blank, light consciousness. In modern times, information is infinite and often a click away. There is so much to process at all times, that it is too easy to get lost in the constant happenings. In the presence of the smiley turtle, I saw the possibility of a different existence.

Turtles are the oldest living reptiles, even older than dinosaurs. Not only are turtles evolutionarily archaic, but they also have lifespans similar to humans: In 2016, a recaptured Blanding’s Turtle near Ann Arbor was believed to be 83 years old! Standing a short distance from them, their detached calm radiated onto me. This species, like so many others, is under threat and is currently listed as a species of special concern in Michigan. They take 14 to 20 years before reaching sexual maturity and have large home ranges (both wetland and upland). Yet, on my early visits to the parks, there they were. Obviously, humans are not turtles. They don’t have to pay rent and taxes or check their email. But that doesn’t mean they can’t teach us how to live on Earth. They have, in fact, been around the sun longer.

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) laying eggs last week at Gallagher Creek Park.

Lucky for us, Michigan is in the center of the Blanding’s range. According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Oakland County has the highest occurrence of Blanding’s turtles in all of Michigan.  Keep an eye out for a domed shell and bright yellow neck that is characteristic of a Blanding’s turtle. You can report a rare species observation here https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/species/report on Michigan Natural Features Inventory’s website.

Because we are in late spring, you are most likely to see female Blanding’s and Snapping turtles. They may be crossing roads, trying to find areas to nest. If you are fortunate enough to witness a Blanding’s turtle laying eggs on your property, you could build even build a nest protector to ensure hatchling success! See https://www.nohlc.org/install-a-turtle-protector.html for instructions. These would need to be checked daily so hatchlings do not get trapped. If you see a turtle on the side of the road and it’s safe, move them to the side of the road they are facing. After you’re done, maybe stand a short distance away and stay in their company. Who knows, you may just learn something.

Sharing those moments with the turtles, I now understand their influence. Without language or expression, I could feel their sureness. I picked the invasive garlic mustard near them and worried that my conservation efforts were never going to be enough. Seeing these turtles whose lineages have remained mostly unchanged, I am reminded to take a moment outside myself. It’s a constant inner battle to exist with the same assurance as those turtles.

Like the turtle, my existence spans past space and time, and yet as humans, we are caught in our own self-made troubles. These long-lived, traveling species are not equipped to cross a busy road. Neither are they able to protect their nests from the increasing urban predator populations. Therefore, this species’ life history is at odds with the increasing urbanization and fragmentation caused by us. Their very presence should be a lesson to see that there is a vastly complex world that should not be ignored. As long as we continue to have turtles as neighbors, we can be reminded that life is bigger than ourselves.

Saving Creatures (Seemingly) in Distress: Turtles, Baby Birds, and Fawns

Warm-hearted nature lovers want to help when they see a turtle slowly crossing a busy road, a baby bird on its own or a fawn apparently without an adult for long hours. So here’s the best information I could glean about what to do in these rescue situations.  The bottom line seems to be help turtles carefully and probably leave baby birds and fawns right where they are.

Rescuing Turtles in the Road

Turtles in the road are usually on a mission. They are looking for new territory, a mate, or a place to lay eggs.

snapper laying eggs

A snapping turtle in the road is on its way to new territory, a mate or, like this female, a soft place to lay eggs.

The Turtle Rescue League in Massachusetts has a great web page on this subject. I’ll just summarize a bit:

  • Safety first! Pull completely off the road, put on hazard lights and be sure cars see you before going onto the road.
  • Never pick up any turtle by the tail! It can injure them very badly.
  • Pick up a small turtle on either side of its shell behind the front legs. Keep the turtle close to the ground so that if it wriggles out of your grasp, it won’t fall and get hurt.
  • For a snapping turtle, better to push it with a BLUNT object from behind. Even held from the back,  they have very long necks and powerful jaws and can be aggressive. To identify them, look for the large prehistoric tail and pointed snout.
  • Be sure to keep the turtle faced in the direction it was going. Otherwise as soon as you leave, it will turn right around and go on the road to complete its mission.
  • Don’t relocate turtles. They have a home territory and will continually try to get back to it, crossing roads again or even not eating if they can’t find a way back. For the same reason, don’t keep a wild turtle as a pet.

Here’s the link to my source, the Turtle Rescue League’s site and here’s another to the Humane Society  about why it’s better to leave a turtle in the wild.

Rescuing Baby Birds

The first thing to know about helpless baby birds in your yard is that they probably don’t need to be rescued.

large high fledgling

This is a fledgling and fledglings don’t need to be rescued unless they are injured.

A vast majority of the time, the parents of the baby bird are temporarily off tending others in the brood where you can’t see them and will return before long. My source for this section is the Cornell University Ornithology Lab. The link to its page about baby bird rescue is below, but again, here’s a summary:

  • Determine if the bird is a nestling or a fledgling. “If the baby bird is sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it’s a nestling.   If so, the nest is almost certainly nearby. If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. Don’t worry—parent birds do not recognize their young by smell. They will not abandon a baby if it has been touched by humans.”
  • Most baby birds you find will be fledglings. “Fledglings are feathered and capable of hopping or flitting, with toes that can tightly grip your finger or a twig. These youngsters are generally adorable and fluffy, with a tiny stub of a tail.” They generally don’t need rescuing.
  • Fledglings very naturally leave the nest (in many cases, they outgrow it) and generally don’t return.  They are then under the care of their parents outside it for a time. So don’t return them to the nest because they’ll just hop back out. Do keep your pets inside and maybe put the fledgling on a nearby low perch. The parents will return when it feels safe to do so and take care of their young one.
  • If you’re sure both parents are dead or the baby bird is injured, then a wildlife rehabilitator is your best best. Here’s a link to the Michigan Dept of Natural Resources list of licensed Wildlife rehabilitators.
  • Check this Cornell Link for more detail on the subject. You may have to scan down the page but it can be found also on the FAQ section of the website.

Rescuing Fawns

As with baby birds, most fawns don’t need rescuing.

high large edited curious fawn

Most of the time it’s better not to rescue fawns. Their mothers leave them for 8 hours at a time to protect them from predators so they can grow up like this one.

According to the National Wildlife Federation’s blog “Wildlife Promise,” after giving birth in tall grass or brush, the doe feeds and cleans the fawn and then moves away from the birth site to protect the fawn by not attracting predators. She then returns at periodic intervals, sometimes up to up 8 hours, to feed the baby.  Here are the basics:

  • Fawns don’t have a strong scent like adults. Their natural instinct to “freeze” when young , along with their dappled sunlight coloration and lack of scent, provide protection while they await the doe’s return.
  • Fawns need to develop strong legs in order to accompany the doe and that can take up to three weeks.
  • If your children are distressed by leaving a fawn alone, there’s a Michigan children’s book that will set their minds at ease. It’s called Lost in the Woods by author, Carl R. Sams. It’s available at the Rochester Hills Public Library.
  • If you have reason to believe the fawn is sick or injured, again, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator at this link.

MY  sources for this information are National Wildlife Federation and Fawncare.com.