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For turtle watching, the time is now
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A male Eastern Box Turtle is held at Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville on Friday, July 12, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

With the warmer months in full swing, turtles have popped up on roadways and in backyards across Georgia. 

Peter Gordon, director of education at Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville, said the eastern box turtle is the most common turtle species found in Hall County.

“They’re particularly prevalent during this time of year, especially after a rainstorm,” Gordon said. “People will see them crossing roads and around their homes.”

Gordon said adult eastern box turtles can live as long as 40-60 years in the wild, and exhibit a range of brown, yellow and black shell color variations.

Although they may seem harmless and unassuming, Gordon advises against taking them inside or keeping as a pet. Like most native wildlife, they’re wise to their territory. 

“They know where to find food, get a drink and where the safe and unsafe places are,” he said. “Leave them where you find them.”

For the past week, Hall County Parks & Leisure has been pushing turtle-related education to the community. 

Becky Ruffner, the department’s marketing and public relations specialist, said the idea was inspired by the increased activity of turtles during the summer.

And then there’s Parker the turtle. 

Last year the 4-foot turtle statue was dubbed the mascot of Hall County Parks & Leisure and given the name Parker. 

“We’re using him this year to do a little more turtle education,” Ruffner said. “One of the things that he does is raise awareness to educate people on the importance of leaving the wildlife where it is. He also helps us promote the conservation of greenspace and park space.”

Like Gordon, Ruffner stresses the importance of not taking turtles home. Unbeknownst to many, Ruffner said the eastern box turtle is a protected species under Georgia law, making it illegal to remove one from its habitat. 

“Humans are one of the biggest threats to the box turtle population by removing them,” she said. “And that box turtle is probably not going to survive.”

Kathy Church, program coordinator with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said out of the approximately 27 species of turtles in Georgia, 13 are protected. 

Those that are unprotected, including the common snapping turtle, can be caught and eaten for dinner. Church said people can legally trap up to 10 turtles per session for food purposes. 

To preserve the native turtle population, Gordon, Ruffner and Church encourage people to help the reptiles cross the road. 

Gordon said people should take note of the direction the turtle is facing and move it along that path. 

“If you take them back to where they started, they’ll just cross the road again,” he said. “They’re very much creatures of habit.”

Ruffner said the best way to move a box turtle involves picking it up gently and grasping the middle edges of the shell. If the turtle begins to move away, allow it to cross on its own.

With common snapping turtles, which are also prevalent in Hall County, Church uses another strategy. 

Because of their long necks and feisty attitudes, she recommends grabbing the turtle from the back, instead of the middle. 

“Those guys can weigh 30-40 pounds easily, so drag it backwards across the road, turn it around and let it go,” Church said. “Never pick it up.”

If people want to avoid touching turtles, she encourages them to take out their car’s floor mat and use it to transport the reptile. 

In addition to eastern box turtles and common snapping turtles, Gordon said other popular species found in Hall County include eastern mud turtles, yellow-bellied sliders, painted turtles and common musk turtles. 

While turtles play an essential role in providing food for carnivores, Church said they also act as good indicators for habitat change.

“If the place starts drying up, turtles start disappearing,” she said. “If someone makes a swamp into a river, the turtles that rely on the swamp will be gone. Most are not tolerant of change.”

For those eager to add turtle-watching to their summer schedules, Gordon recommends visiting Elachee’s updated live animal exhibit or taking a stroll along one of the nature center’s trails. 

“Georgia has many species of turtles, and any species of native animal is an indication of a healthy habitat,” Gordon said. 

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