Help Turtles In Spring
Why do turtles need help? Paleontologists still debate about how long Turtles have had an earthly presence. Fossil evidence puts it at 200 million years, some research suggests more. Such resilience makes it all the more difficult to comprehend that at present the turtles in Ontario are a species at risk. Turtle populations are declining largely due to habitat loss, road mortality, and poaching. Making up for these losses is compounded by the fact that unlike many animal species turtles are very slow to repopulate. Species such as Snapping Turtles and Blanding's Turtles can take upwards of 17 to 20 years to reach sexual maturity. It can take as many as 60 years to replace one deceased adult turtle. In addition to this, the survival rate for turtle eggs and hatchlings is less than 1%.
The great news is that each of us through 'grassroots' conservation efforts can be instrumental in helping protect Ontario's turtles from the threat of extinction by engaging in citizen science and stewardship practices. You do not need to have a degree in biology or be an undergraduate student to effectively help turtles. Citizens that care about the decline in turtle populations and want to help can accomplish so much and learn as they go.
The following are 'TURTLE' related notes we have assembled with an emphasis on 'Helping Ontario's Turtles' during the transition from winter to spring. Some of the information is general and applies to helping turtles throughout the entire turtle season, April - October. We have set up this resource so you can easily read just the subject matter that interests you or read the information in its entirety. It is our hope you find this resource useful and informative this turtle season and thereafter.
(1) TURTLE SEASON
(2) WILDLIFE ALERT
(3) SPRING THAW/FLOODING
(4) SPREAD THE WORD
(5) SPRING TURTLES
(6) RELEASING HATCHLINGS
(7) ASSISTED ROAD CROSSINGS
(8) ROAD SAFETY
(9) INJURED TURTLES
(10) TURTLE TAXI
(11) WILDLIFE IN DISTRESS
(1) TURTLE SEASON: Typically the time of year you can expect to see Ontario's turtles out and about is April to October. When turtle season begins and ends is dependent on the temperatures and weather patterns. During April turtles will be emerging from brumation (hibernation).
(2) WILDLIFE ALERT: The seasonal transition from winter to spring is a time to be especially 'alert' to wildlife concerns. Erratic temperature fluctuations and weather patterns can be a challenge for all manner of wildlife emerging from their winter dormancy as well as complications flooding can cause depending on how the winter thaw times out.
Although hibernation is an efficient survival strategy for animals to get through a harsh Ontario winter it is a 'vulnerable' period in an animal's lifecycle. Coming out of hibernation is not a simple process. It takes time for animals to regain their depleted energy stores and get their metabolism back to normal. Wildlife fresh out of hibernation may not be as sure-footed and swift to get off the roads. Turtles and other small animals will be slower than usual crossing roads and trails. For your sake and their sake please be mindful of potential wildlife encounters while driving. Remind other motorists in your household and visitors to the area to do the same.
(3) SPRING THAW/FLOODING: As a precaution should the spring thaw, flooding and/or erratic weather patterns occur in the early weeks of spring in your community keep an eye out for turtles that may be in distress having been disturbed and/or sweep up in turbulent thawing conditions. Especially as cooler nighttime temperatures and a sudden blast of winter weather cannot be dismissed during the transition from winter to spring. Binoculars can help to determine a turtle's behavior and well-being. If a turtle spotted appears unresponsive and makes no move to head back into the body of water under the ice, especially with cooler night temperatures and/or a blast of snowy conditions eminent, this is concerning.
If able to confirm that the turtle needs help 'PLEASE' do not venture out onto a seemingly frozen body of water to attempt a turtle rescue unless you are sure of the stability of the ice. Any doubts, do not put yourself in danger! If a rescue is necessary contact people in your community that are experienced in such matters. The public resources available in every community are different so we are not able to suggest exactly who to call but an example might be the local fire department. It is very possible they will have trained staff or volunteers, as well as the equipment for ice rescues, and will be familiar with the protocols in such emergencies. If not they may be able to point you in the right direction for assistance in your community. Note: Should you spot a pet or animal that has gone through the ice the same safety precautions apply and recommend getting in touch with the local fire department for assistance.
When the turtle is retrieved it may appear lifeless and be considered dead. Do not assume the turtle is dead! Turtles have the unique ability to rev down their metabolism to such a degree that they can appear lifeless. Even a fully qualified veterinarian under such circumstances would find it necessary to use an ECG to determine if a turtle has a heartbeat or not. Please call the Ontario Turtle Conservation Center home to Ontario's turtle hospital at 705-741-5000 as soon as possible if a turtle is rescued. The OTCC provides medical attention to the turtle species native to Ontario at no charge and can arrange transportation to get the turtle to the OTCC or one of the first responders they work with if you are not able to drive the turtle to the turtle hospital. Note: The OTCC operational hours vary each season however they are open 7 days a week. Please leave a message if no one answers the phone or if calling after hours.
NOTABLE MENTION: After the snow has receded is a great time to initiate or participate in a spring clean-up. Just like us turtles and other wildlife need a clean and healthy environment to thrive.
(4) SPREAD THE WORD: Any time of the year is a great time to increase awareness. There are many different ways to increase consideration and conversation that could help species at risk. Some of these include; installing a turtle awareness sign where permitted on your property, put a turtle awareness bumper sticker or car magnet on your vehicle, purchase an awareness t-shirt or hat to help spread the word. Share a turtle awareness post on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms. If seen by the right person any of the aforementioned could make the difference between a turtle getting help or not. The more people that understand the role biodiversity and ecosystems have in our daily lives and the importance of protecting the ecological services they provide the better the chances of helping turtles and other vulnerable wildlife species and their habitat.
(5) SPRING TURTLES: Expect to see some of last year's turtle hatchlings emerging from their nest in April through to May. Each year most turtle hatchlings emerge from their nest sometime between August and October but some don't. As the cooler fall temperatures set in some turtle hatchlings spend their first winter in their nest or below the nest chamber only a few inches below the frost line. This is a survival strategy known as, 'overwintering' used to escape limited food supplies, possible predators, cold temperatures, and harsh winter conditions. This is behavior more typical of Painted turtles and Map turtles but other turtle hatchling species will resort to this survival tactic. The rate of success in these cases will vary due to the harshness of the winter and some turtle species not being as resilient under such conditions.
Ice crystals form around the overwintering painted turtles and marginally in them but a self-generated type of antifreeze prevents them from an assured death. They remain in a super-cooled state until the spring when the ground thaws and the little turtles emerge from their nest, raring to go. As the snow melts and ground thaws please keep an eye out for spring turtle arrivals. They could show up on your property, in your garden, or all manner of places as well as on the roads.
(6) HELPING HATCHLINGS: Hatchlings whether spotted in the early spring, late summer, or autumn face the possibility of encounters with many predators. These include; wild, domesticated, avian, and aquatic predators. Should you find a hatchling on your property, public property or on the road you could significantly increase the odds of survival by taking the hatchling to the nearest body of water in the direction the hatchling was headed. Once there, release the hatchling in an area that has a shallow entry point for the hatchling to make its way into the water and there is vegetation that will serve as protective covering for the little turtles. The little hatchlings will spend much of their early years hiding until they have gained some size and girth and are not so vulnerable to predators.
Note: If there are multiple hatchlings to release spread them around the body of water in shallow water with vegetation. A general guideline is 10 feet apart if possible. This will reduce the chances of predators locating clusters of turtles and increase the number of hatchlings that survive.
(7) ASSISTED ROAD CROSSINGS: Turtles can be observed crossing roads at any time during turtle season. April to mid-July is a busy time with the spring hatchlings showing up, turtles emerging from hibernation, turtles traveling to find mates, the females looking to nest, turtles foraging for food, moving to seasonal habitat, some times turtles travel in response to a habitat disturbance, or a drought that causes their body of water to dry up, flooding that causes fluctuating water levels and sometimes reasons only turtles know. Mid-July to the end of August is generally a quieter time and there are fewer turtle road crossings on account of it being very hot. September to October is a busy time again for turtle road crossings as the hatchlings are emerging from their nest and other turtles are into October traveling to their winter habitat.
Stopping to assist a turtle across the road if it is safe for you to do so can make the difference between the turtle observed on the road making it from this turtle season to the next. Should you stop to assist a turtle across the road always move the turtle in the direction the turtle was headed, even if it makes no sense to you. Turtles are aquatic animals. If a turtle leaves the water it is because they have a distinct reason for doing so. If you redirect the turtle it will end up back on the road headed to the original destination. This may put the turtle in harm's way a second time and we don't want that.
See our 'How To Help A Snapping Turtle Across The Road' post on the Think Turtle WordPress Blog for information about safely assisting turtles of all sizes across the road.
(8) ROAD SAFETY: If you stop to assist a turtle across the road or retrieve an injured turtle it is imperative to make 'SAFETY YOUR #1 PRIORITY!' Do not stop in the middle of the lane pull off the road onto the shoulder as far over as possible and put your hazard lights on. If there is no shoulder or the shoulder is too narrow drive until you find a safe shoulder and safely double back on foot. Be Safe! Please think of your safety, passenger safety, and the other motorists on the road. A high-visibility safety vest is recommended to have in your vehicle at all times. Please wear gloves when assisting a turtle or use hand sanitizer after handling a turtle if you choose not to wear gloves.
(9) INJURED TURTLES: Did you know Ontario has a turtle hospital? If you find an injured turtle 'no matter where you are in Ontario' you can help the turtle get the medical attention it desperately needs to survive. When you have safely retrieved the injured turtle and have the turtle in your possession please call the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) home to Ontario's turtle hospital at 705-741-5000. Their trained staff will assess the situation and determine the best course of action. The OTCC provides medical care at 'no charge' and has turtle taxi volunteers to assist with transportation from anywhere in Ontario if you are not able to drive the turtle there.
The Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre is located in Peterborough and is the 'ONLY' wildlife rehabilitation centre dedicated solely to providing medical and rehabilitative care to the turtle species native to Ontario. Once treated and rehabilitated the turtles are released back into their natural habitat at the point of origin.
Please do not assume that a private animal clinic, wildlife rehabilitator, or animal shelter in the area you are located or the area you found the turtle will admit a turtle or is trained to offer turtle first aid or treatment. OTCC works in conjunction with first responders throughout Ontario that are trained in 'basic' turtle first aid and pain management. It is always best to report an injured turtle to the OTCC. When you speak with the OTCC staff they will assess the circumstances and if necessary they will direct you to the nearest first response team able to administer basic first aid and/or pain management and temporarily admit the turtle until arrangements can be made to have the turtle transferred to the OTCC if that is required to further treat the turtle. The availability of the first response private animal clinics and/or wildlife rehabilitators varies so when OTCC has referred you to one please call the private animal clinic and/or wildlife rehabilitator you were referred to arrange a drop-off time.
(10) TURTLE TAXI: During turtle season April to October turtles while going about their routine activities sometimes end up getting injured. Most often this is the result of being struck by a motor vehicle. Other injuries can include; getting hooked on a fishing line, struck by a boat/personal watercraft or propeller, an animal attack (domestic/wild), deliberate harm, land development excavation, road works equipment, construction, or turtle misadventures. Last year, 2022 saw the highest number of injured turtle admissions ever to the OTCC, '1,885'. Thanks to many generous and kind people across Ontario volunteering their time and vehicle many turtles were able to get to the OTCC for the medical treatment they desperately needed and survived because of this.
The OTCC has a network of 'Turtle Taxi Volunteers' across Ontario through which they arrange drives for injured turtles, accidentally unearthed turtle eggs, and occasionally medical supplies. Some drives are more local, others are farther away. Long-distance trips often involve multiple drivers to get the turtle from the location it was found to the OTCC.
OTCC is always in need of Turtle Taxi Volunteers from all across Ontario. To be a Turtle Taxi driver you do not need to have any previous experience with turtles, but must have access to a vehicle. The OTCC requires the assistance of citizens who care about the decline in our turtle populations and want to help out. Turtles will be transported in enclosed containers. Turtle Taxi drivers do not need to handle the turtles directly.
If you are interested in volunteering or have questions please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The OTCC will furnish you with the information you need to know.
POINT TO NOTE: The Ontario turtles typically nest from mid-May to mid-July. June is the 'peak' month for nesting. During this period turtle road crossings will increase significantly.
(11) WILDLIFE IN DISTRESS: Should you encounter wildlife other than turtles in Ontario that are sick, injured, or abandoned please 'consult' the Ontario Wildlife Rescue website for the Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry (MNRF) licensed wildlife rehabilitator nearest you. An experienced rehabilitator will help you decide what the next steps should be. The Ontario Wildlife Rescue website is an excellent resource when wild animals are in need www.ontariowildliferescue.ca
Please remind 'EVERYONE' in your household and visitors to your community to be mindful of the wildlife we share the roads with. Thank you most ardently for the ways you help Ontario's turtles, other wildlife, and their habitat.
If you have any turtle-related matters do not hesitate to contact Think Turtle Conservation Initiative at 647-606-9537 (phone/text) or send an e-mail to email@example.com. For additional information about helping turtles check out our website at www.thinkturtle.ca, follow us on Facebook, and/or read our WordPress Blog posts.