CHS Blog

Winners of the worst turtle nest location of the year award

July 11, 2022
David Seburn, Canadian Wildlife Federation & chair of the CHS conservation committee

There once was a turtle looking to nest
Who couldn’t find a place that was best
The road shoulder was a trap
And the ball diamond was crap
And those construction sites made her distressed

Protecting a turtle’s nest is an investment in the future. Each protected nest represents turtles that may reach adulthood ten or even twenty years into the future, while each unprotected nest is a likely meal for a hungry raccoon. In many areas, raccoons and other nest predators can destroy 70% or more of all turtle nests.

As part of my work with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, we try to increase turtle reproductive success in eastern Ontario by installing nest protectors or, with appropriate permissions, incubate eggs in captivity. Nest protectors are the simplest way to protect a nest. A protector has a wooden frame with a wire mesh on top to keep out predators but allows sun and rain to reach the ground above the nest. Exit holes in the wooden frame allow the hatchlings to leave the protector after they hatch. Nest protectors usually work well, but sometimes predators dig under the protector and get at the eggs, and there is a risk that unscrupulous people can find and steal the nest because the protector gives away the nest location.

Many locations, though, are simply not suitable for nest protectors. It is generally unsafe to install them on road shoulders, as they can be a hazard to vehicles that pull off the road. Road shoulders are also a risky place for hatchlings. If they go onto the road, the hatchlings may be killed by a vehicle on their first day aboveground. For nests in such locations, instead of installing nest protectors, we collect the eggs and incubate them. After the eggs hatch, the hatchlings are released at the nearest wetland to the nest.

Here are two of the worst nesting locations we saw last year (2021).

One Snapping Turtle laid her eggs in the grassy median surrounded by roads on all three sides. This is a poor nesting site for a number of reasons. The open area certainly will get lots of sunshine, but being surrounded by roads may mean the median will be too hot and dry for the eggs to survive. And of course, even if the eggs did hatch, no matter which way the hatchlings go they would have to cross a busy road and likely be killed. Hopefully, the mother turtle finds a safer place to lay her eggs next year.

Another Snapping Turtle was a sports fan. At least we think she must have been as she laid her eggs in a baseball diamond, near home plate. Installing a nest protector near home plate was not an option so we collected these eggs. This nest had a remarkable 65 eggs – the largest Snapping Turtle nest we found last year. Hopefully, next year the mother turtle can temper her enthusiasm for baseball.

Our data on nest locations is biased by our road surveys for nesting turtles and reports from concerned citizens, but it is remarkable how many nests are laid in modified habitats: road shoulders, flower beds, driveways, baseball diamonds, piles of dirt, and construction sites. One has to wonder what turtle nesting patterns were like before humans dominated the landscape. Are road shoulders a kind of super-normal stimulus to nesting turtles – an irresistible place to nest even though roadsides attract nest predators and hatchlings are run over on the road? We are running a vast, uncontrolled experiment on turtle nesting habitat. Who knows what the long-term effects will be on turtle populations?