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WILD WNY / Turtles

From childhood obsession to cherished species

Basking Eastern painted turtle


I owe my initial interest in nature to my older brother, Vernon, not because he was especially interested himself, but because he was so adept at attracting and capturing wildlife. Vern’s particular character was best displayed in his ability to capture turtles in the brick pit ponds a half-mile from our home. His method was simple: he waded into the shallow water to stand quietly next to a log on which he had observed turtles basking. When he first approached them, the turtles quickly dove down to hide in the mud, but after fifteen or twenty minutes, they would reemerge and my brother would quickly pick up several.


One time, we took two of the turtles home and placed them in a cement-lined window well behind our house. Remarkably, one of them was gone the next morning. It had scaled the foot-high vertical wall of the well using its claws to give it purchase against the rough cement. I know that it did this because the second turtle was half-way up when I got there. To this day, I remain impressed by this feat.

The snapping turtle is commonly found in WNY.


That turtle species is common here on the Niagara Frontier; they were painted turtles, so named because of the red, yellow, and black markings around the edges of their shells. The head is also lined with yellow. There are a number of subspecies. Our Eastern painted turtle is distinguished by the plate-like divisions of its upper shell—in technical jargon, the scutes of its carapace—aligned in regular rows across its back. Although painted turtles can give you a painful nip if you are silly enough to urge them to do so, they are surely to be counted among the benign creatures of our ecosystem. Picked up, they draw in their heads and legs and wait you out.


The snapping turtle, on the other hand, I consider a fearful monster, a threat to all other wildlife living in water. While painted turtles seldom grow larger than six inches, foot-long snappers are common, and some old individuals can weigh over fifty pounds.


They don’t have to be lumbering giants to be distinctive. Even tiny hatchlings have identifiable characteristics: that large head, rough back, and long, saw-toothed tail easily distinguish them from other turtle species. The adults show so much of their body that their shell appears to be too small for them.


With a number of other birders, I once observed a minor tragedy. We were all watching through telescopes a lovely little phalarope, a shorebird with a very thin bill, swimming in circles in shallow water. Suddenly the little bird floundered and was drawn under the water, its bill the last part to disappear. It was the victim of a snapping turtle. Unable to intervene, we stood in shocked silence. The ever-decreasing number of ducklings following their mothers is due in large measure to these aquatic carnivores. Believe it or not, despite its fearsome reputation, the common snapping turtle was voted by our state legislature to become our state reptile.


A reminder: it is illegal to take any native turtle (or its eggs) from the wild without a valid permit from the state DEC.



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