Here's a joke: Why did the turtle cross the road?
Answer: To find food, water, a mate and a nesting location.
Of course, that's not really a joke. Turtles all across Illinois are making their way across the state's 140,000 miles of roadways. Some are looking for food and water, but it's also breeding season. That means turtles are looking for mates and trying to find places to lay their eggs.
Peggy Doty is an educator with the environmental and energy stewardship team at the University of Illinois Extension. She said turtles often breed on one side of the road and lay their eggs on the other side.
"Roads tend to divide habitats," she said. "So where there used to not be a road, now there is one through the animal's habitat." Furthermore, with Illinois on track to move into Phase 4, the roads are filling up with more traffic. Doty wants motorists to be safe and slow down.
"If a turtle is crossing the road, do your best to let it cross," she said. "Do not get in a physical automobile accident. Human health needs to come first."
With that in mind, she said, "If it's completely safe for you and you are unafraid to sensibly move it to the direction it's going -- not where it's been -- try to figure which direction it's going and get it across the road."
Despite their reputation, turtles are quick, and all species bite and scratch. And if they are picked up, chances are they will empty the contents of their bladder on you. Knowing this, if you pick one up, carefully lift it along the shell's edge near the middle of its body, as long as it is not a snapper.
Assisting snapping turtles requires bravery and sturdy tools. If it's safe to do so, use a shovel or a rubber floor mat to help prod them across the road. If you have a sturdy branch, you can try to gently push it along but a frightened turtle will either retreat into its shell or feel threatened and try to bite you. If you aren't prepared or feel uneasy, it's best to put your safety first and get back into your car. Doty said to remember to look both ways before you go back to your car. Cars approach very quickly and drivers, especially if they are tired and/or distracted are not expecting to see humans or turtles on the road.
If you find an injured turtle, here is a list of statewide wildlife rehabilitators who have permits from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Illinois has 17 species of turtles; four are on the endangered species list and one is threatened. Doty said we are responsible for the survival of turtles. "Human behavior affects habitat," she said. "Without habitat, we have nowhere to go when we need to protect ourselves from something. Our home is our habitat and it's critical that we protect the habitats that protect the turtles."
And if you see a turtle in your yard, Doty said, "Just leave it alone and watch it." She added, "Just because you find a tadpole or a turtle -- that doesn't mean it's yours. It's not 'Finders Keepers.' It's wildlife. Is isn't a 'free shopping day.'"