Backyard Naturalist: Painted turtles know just where to go

Painted turtles sunning at a pond in Troy. Dana Wilde photo

It’s turtle time, and sure enough, we spotted one scampering toward the railroad tracks by Kanokolus Road near Unity Pond.

Scampering is probably not exactly the right word. I steered around the turtle and pulled over, and my grandson, Silas, jumped out to inspect her as she made her laborsome way toward the lakeshore.

I say “her” not because I know how to recognize turtle genders — not to mention much of anything else chelonian — but because this is the time of year when the females make their way out of bogs and low areas, where they generally reside, to sandy wet soil where they can lay their eggs. So I assumed our turtle was a female.

She was an Eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), this much was easily known. They’re fairly common around low, wet areas in southern Maine up through the Midcoast, and inland to about the Belgrade and Moosehead lakes areas into Penobscot County, according to maps. They’re easy to identify by the bright red markings around the edge of the shell, and red and yellow stripes on the head and neck. The shell, or carapace, has the distinctive scutes, or symmetrically arranged plates, all black with no spots. Painted turtles like to rest in sunshine, and are sometimes called sun turtles.

Silas Wilde holds an Eastern painted turtle in Unity. Photo courtesy of Jack Wilde

Silas helped the turtle over the tracks, then picked her up to inspect her. The clawed feet paddled the air, scratching at his hands.

It’s funny how memory works; I could practically feel the claws raking my own hands in my own turtle adventures decades ago. When I was Silas’ age, we caught painted turtles at the brook near the farmhouse in Cape Elizabeth, where we lived. We tried to stack them up on the shore, but, of course, they just scampered back down to the water, where we snatched them back and kept trying to pile them up.

We had not heard anything about conservation concerns back in those days. Painted turtles were like mobile, living toys to my sister and me. Their population is secure hereabouts, like the much larger snapping turtles. Mortality rates for young painted turtles are high, which is true of turtles generally, and it’s tempting in this time of ecological crisis to see vehicle deaths as a culprit, especially at this time of year, when turtles get crushed on the road while making their way to nest sites.

Interestingly, several studies of Eastern painted turtle populations suggest their numbers do not suffer unduly from encounters with vehicles. A Canadian study summarized this by saying: “Turtles are killed on roads, yet there is little evidence of negative road effects on their abundances. … This could be due to reduced predation of turtle nests laid along roadsides, which could compensate for the effects of higher adult mortality on turtle populations near roads.”

Two turtle species are on Maine’s endangered and threatened list, which was updated last October. Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) is listed as endangered, and the spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) as threatened. The wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) is listed as a “Species of Special Concern.” Because these animals are scarce, any road deaths of individuals are problematic.

As Silas held his painted turtle and stroked her shell, we briefly debated whether he should bring it home to live with his amphibians. His dad and I easily convinced him the turtle would be pretty unhappy, and he agreed and set her down.

With innate navigational precision, she headed through the brush straight toward the lakeshore. They know what they’re doing and how to get there. Which cannot always be said of us.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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