For the Birds Radio Program: Turtles

Original Air Date: July 6, 1999

Cars hit too many turtles. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


I spent the last two weeks teaching Elderhostel classes on the North Arm of Burntside Lake near Ely, something I’ve done every June for the last 12 years. When I started going up there in 1987, we used to stop and pull over at least three or four times every trip to rescue a turtle crossing the road. Back in the 70s there were lots of turtles on highways, and I took it as a personal responsibility to help as many as possible across the road. It wasn’t always easy to get to them before cars did. I’ll never forget the time I approached one when a car with Illinois plates coming from the opposite direction actually sped up. I met the driver’s eyes with my own as he steered straight for the turtle and killed it. Something about his triumphant jeer has haunted me ever since.

Except for herons and a handful of birds that pick at roadkills, not many birds eat turtles. Every now and then I see crows patrolling a field the day baby painted turtles hatch out and waddle towards water, but I seldom actually see them catch one. Although the concept of predation is one I’ve learned to accept, there’s something very practical and sturdy, yet achingly vulnerable, about turtles, and on the few occasions I’ve watched a bird eat one, I’ve sided with the turtle. But I’ve always thought that rescuing them was a fairly solitary mission. My husband Russ always helped me rescue them, and my friend John Heid does, too, but overall I didn’t think most people were much interested. I felt the way Robert Frost did at the opening of his poem, A Tuft of Flowers, cutting through grass with a scythe that seemed to whisper to him a sad message that men must always be isolated and apart.

I haven’t seen evidence of people hitting turtles on purpose in years, but as the number of cars mushrooms and the speed limit goes skyward, turtle numbers are decreasing. When I went down with some friends in May to see the lost Swallow-tailed Kite that turned up in Faribault, we passed a few utterly squished turtles, but stopped when we saw some intact ones. John Heid ran out to rescue them, but both were already dead.

This year I saw three turtles on my annual trip up to Ely, all beyond help. It was such a relief to finally come upon a live one as I drove home. It was right in the center of the road so I stopped and carried it across. This time, once again, a car approached as I walked toward the turtle, and ironically, this one bore Illinois plates. But the couple inside the car both gave me a big smile and the thumbs up sign as they passed. I was brought full circle, to the end of Frost’s poem. As he slices through the grass, he suddenly comes upon a tuft of flowers that had been spared by the mower before him. As he, too, spares the fragile and lovely little stand of flowers, he thinks of the truth of things.

Men work together, I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart.